Spencer Shop

Employee Interviews

The Southern Oral History Program of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill works to preserve history, as told through voices that experienced it. As part of this Program, Daniel Ellison had the opportunity to interview some of the ageing employees of Southern Railway and Spencer Shops in the 1980s. Donated to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, they have been digitized through a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council.

North Carolina Humanities Council
Edward Bostian
Floree & Stacie Holcombe
Fred Baird
Hugh Williams
Hugh Young
James Cooper
Lewis Barber
Luther Burch 1
Luther Burch 2
Sam Upton
Thomas Henry

The Southern Oral History Program of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill works to preserve history, as told through voices that experienced it. As part of this Program, Daniel Ellison had the opportunity to interview some of the ageing employees of Southern Railway and Spencer Shops in the 1980s. Donated to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, they have been digitized and transcribed through a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council.

These interviews were conducted with retired employees of Spencer Shops, Southern Railway, and others who had intimate experiences with rail transportation in North Carolina. The interviews focus on the participants lives in the first half of the 20th century and allow the listener to picture what life and work were like during the peak of Spencer Shops, life on the Railroad, and the experience of traveling by rail. Select an interview below to begin listening.

The interviews have been edited for length and content, with silences in the audio and breaks in the transcriptions indicating where parts have been removed. Please inquire with the North Carolina Transportation Museum for full access to the interviews.

Warning: Interviews may use strong language, discuss historical incidents as well as accidents, and may not be suitable for all ages. Listener discretion is advised.

Edward Bostian
Floree & Stacie Holcombe
Fred Baird
Hugh Williams
Hugh Young
James Cooper
Lewis Barber
Luther Burch 1
Luther Burch 2
Sam Upton
Thomas Henry

Edward “Dick” Bostian (1888-1981)

Storehouse Manager

Interviewed by Daniel Ellison, April 5, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Edward Bostian: And round the age of 20, I went to work for the Southern Railways here at the Spencer Shops, as a laborer at the big sum of 9 cents an hour. And this is the one move that I’ve made that I’ve never regretted. The first job that I got was in the roundhouse helping a man put on pipe clamps and all the little things where they tore down the jackets and stuff to be repaired and it was our job to put the clamps back on to hold the pipes rigid. And of course, I did other jobs. And from there, I went to the storage department that was organized about the time that the shops were organized. The shops, to my recollection, we had an old railroad shop down on, uh, North Lee Street and joining the Western Railroad in that triangle down in there. And they moved that shop with the shop from Burlington to Spencer, consolidated them and with this small shop as I went to work in June of 1907, and I stayed with this company for 52 and a half years, and I didn’t miss a pay check. Now, when I went to the storage department, they had a long, lanky storekeeper by the name of Charlie Norman they’d brought in from Atlanta. And also they had a chief clerk that they’d brought from the old R & D Railroad in Manchester, which is South Richmond. And they was the two bosses that I went to work for. and for some reason or another, this division storekeeper picked me out to help him to take monthly checks of what stock we had on hand to enable him to replace what had been used and…

Dan Ellison: You were working as a laborer and he just kind of picked you out?

B: I went from the roundhouse to the storehouse and became the storehouse man. In other words, I stored brass and things such as lamp bulbs and pipes and pipe fittings and rivets and wood screws and all that kind of stuff in the proper bins where there was a little tap on it showing what size and what it was and bolts – It wasn’t a very large storehouse – that is the wooden storehouse where it is today is halfway between the brick Master Mechanic’s Office and the glass flue shop that later became the electric shop, and that was the old building – now that building, if you will notice, the rafters up at the top, there was a big fire in it one time. But I do remember this. in 19 hundred and 8, it’s been written up several times in the newspapers, there was a big explosion. Because, we had a platform across the tracks from the water tank on the East side by the Master Mechanic’s Office, was in the front part of this wooden storehouse and the storage department and office was in about ¾ of the rest of it, and there was about an 8 foot platform extending from the buildings to the tracks and we also had some castings on the platform at the north end. Now at the north end of this platform they had, I’d reckon, about an 8 x 10 steel building in which we stored fuses and torpedoes which were inflammable. And one day in 19 and 8, I believe that’s the year, just after the shop – there was a shop-train that would employees three times a day and would let them on and off at the storehouse platform. And it’s lucky the day the explosion was, the shop train had pulled out for Salisbury, and that saved a lot of lives.

E: Was anybody killed?

B: I can’t tell you, I don’t think they was. But it damaged buildings, greatly. And, uh…

E: What were they doing with torpedoes?

B: Torpedoes is for the transportation people that puts on the rail for the engineer and fireman, and the fuses is the danger signal for the train crew that there’s a train ahead. That’s before you had all this electronic materials, such as, uh, semaphores and so forth. And, uh, they’re highly flammable. Later we did away with – we also carried dynamite because we used dynamite before we got the experience of how to do it otherwise. They used to blow the stay bolts out of the boilers in the locomotives when they had the locomotives in the shops for repairs. See, these stay bolts would leak and you would have to take it out and ream a new hole and make a stay bolt to fit a new – where the threads are at. And, of course, I think that was some dynamite in this building also, but that’s when they made a change about blowing out these stay bolts. And, um…

E: How big is a stay bolt?

B: A stay bolt would run anywhere from, uh, 5/16 to about 1 ¼ inches in diameter and 16ths and 32nds, and you see that goes in the crown sheet to hold the two sheets together. That’s what I’d called the combustion chamber of a locomotive and I , as I told you, went to work in 1907, and in 1912 and 13, I climbed a little bit and there was a vacancy on what we had as a supply train. This was a train composed of about 4 or 5 cars that was put on the locals each day that we had a schedule where we would travel about 50 or 60 miles a day in those days – that was about a day’s work – delivering car seals, brooms, toilet paper, and, uh, different oils and lamps, burners, chimneys, and most everything that a [?], like a housewife would put in her kitchen. Toilet articles and soaps, stuff like that and distribute, also distribute nails, and, uh, other stuff to the maintenance – the way B & B people and, uh…

E: What was the, what B & P stand for?

B: Bridge and Building, and, uh department. And, uh, then we’d dead head in and refill and go out on another division. We had four or five divisions that the supply car can run on out of Spencer

E: Was there much fooling around on the job?

B: Oh, they’d take a drink now and then during the work hours.

E: Really?

B: Oh yes. I was drunk on many a day on the job, and, uh, that was one of the incidents that happened in that department. Now about the, after 1913, I come off supply car and they made me stock clerk or storehouse man and then it wasn’t long before I was made a general clerk, which is, at that time, was equivalent to general, was a general foreman in our department. And then they increased my pay to $55 a month and I was in paradise. That was a big salary back in 1918. Then along came the First World War, when we were under government control and, uh, under Mr. MacAdoo, and he raised our salaries – I jumped from $55 to $124 a month. And it wasn’t long before I was made chief stock clerk, and then in 1921, 22, I was took up to Washington to help, uh, make the settlements with the inventories on the system. It was immense, seeing as it was scattered over 8,000 miles of railroad and about 25, 30, 40, or 50 different locations. And I worked on that. And we was the only railroad that paid the government off in black the First World War. And by manipulation, the company didn’t suffer a bit. I think that’s one of the reasons why they kept me on the railroad. And, uh, every time I squawk about a raise, a transfer up the line, they told me they wanted to keep me where I was and they increased my salary. During the 1930s when most people in this country were working for a dollar a day selling apples and prosperity was just around the corner with Herbert Hoover, I was making $500 a month

E: You’re kidding. That was a great salary.

B: It was. I was up in the [?], and later on, a lot of things happened and I came into a fellowship, I was making $750 a month in 1948. But now I’m getting ahead of my story. Going back to the railroad, I’ve seen a lot of things happen on the railroad and I remember once – I’m rambling, there’s a lot of years in between some of these – I do know of seeing a man Ray fall into the lye pit – that was caustic soda – boiling steam water and caustic soda where they put all the mechanisms of the locomotives – that is the rigging like underneath, like that locomotive up there on the wall and – to get the grease off, and he stumbled and fell in there and it took all the meat off of all his bones. And, uh, I think that’s the worst one – accident – and I remember an old fellow Brown was in the blacksmiths shop that we had working on pulleys and shafting and somehow or another, the end of the shafting caught his overalls and it ripped all his clothes off except his socks and his shoes and slung him 20 feet. But I think one of the greatest miracles that ever happened – I had a friend that was in the electrical department that, uh, was working in the, uh, electrical shop, and he was overhead with the crane, and for some reason he came in contact with 44 hundred volts of electricity and it went through his body, slung him to the ground, and the man survived. I think that’s one of the greatest miracles that’s happened. I’ve seen a lot of animosity in the shops.

I remember one of my earliest storekeepers was W.A. Muller – I called him Bill – he was a brainy duck. He used to be the travelling storekeeper. I first came in contact with him because I went up to Wash – when I first went up to Washington – my first visit in Washington was when Mr. Wilson was inaugurated and there was about 2 or 3 feet of snow on the ground and the general storekeeper at that time – Johnny Guber – who was to be my partner for many, many years after that, told this man W.A. Muller to take me and Charlie out for dinner, because we didn’t have an expense account, and at that time. And that’s when I came into contact with him. And then from 1920 to 1937, I worked a week to 10 days every month in the general office in Washington. First, I used to work down in the, uh, Southern Railroad building at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue where we sold it to the government – to the Coast Guard – and we had a fire in that old building, prior to before we sold it, and I worked some, over in the Munshead building across Pennsylvania Avenue, almost a couple doors about the National Theatre. Then, later on, we built a new office building up at McPhearson Square and I used to live at the, uh, Hamilton and the Ambassador Hotel that was opposite one another only two blocks away from the general office. And, I knew Washington like a top, and then later on in 1937, when we set up another different set up, I came back to Spencer and I stayed at Spencer headquarters because my office was on the top floor of the Master Mechanic’s Building on the East corner. And I had all of my stock clerks in there and the storehouse men, of course, worked down in the storeroom. Going back to storehouse men, I remember one time, during Charlie Norman’s time, we were going to be taking inventory about all the material we had on hand, to send to the general office. And, uh, I told every one of them, I says, “Oh you SBs go to work tomorrow.” I was pretty rough with them. I had about 150 men at that time. And I was sittin’ at my desk, which is, uh, part of the storehouse now, but it used to was cut off with a big brick wall from the Master Mechanic’s Office, and there was another clerk sitting right across packing some file boxes back of me, and a woman – two women – came in, one stood on one side in the back, one on the other, and just like on each side of your chair – and one of them asks me, says, “Are you Dick Bostian?” “Uhhhh yaah”. Says, uh, “I’m so and so.” Says, “you give out an order that every SB has to work Sunday?” “Uh yeah. I mean that”. She says “Well, let me tell you something, my husband is not going to work and you’re not going to fire him.” About that time, I felt something against my ribs. I knew what that was. Any damned fool woulda known what that was. “Uh, yes’m. he can be off, with pleasure. Yes ma’am.” But I says, “I don’t forget.” I went upstairs after the incident, I told Charlie, that was C.J. Norman, the storekeeper – “Charlie. I had a damn run in with a woman downstairs.” And he laughed, he says, “What did she do?” “She stuck her gun in my ribs.” “She did?” “Yeah” “Watcha tell her?” I said, “Hell, her husband can be off,” says “that’s all right we can take care of him later, some other way.” And that was one of the incidents I was sorta scared. Now, I also told you about W.A. Miller when we started this tape recorder. There was a lot of animosity. ‘Cause I told you about Charlie Norman carrying the [knocks] and him and Bill Miller was sent to Spencer as the storekeeper. He had no use for the Blacksmith Shop foreman. And, uh, I was a go between. I was a messenger – delivery boy.

E: Between who now?

B: Between the division storekeeper and, uh, chief blacksmith shop foreman. He had around about 40 or 50 furnaces and blacksmiths under him, so it was a big one. That building been demolished now. It’s at the lower end of the machine shop on the south corner, coming this was towards the old transit yards outside the rail shop fence. And, uh, I’d take the messages to the blacksmith shop foreman and back to Bill Miller and that’s the way we did business. Now, also, when I was stock clerk, the foremen used to make out their monthly list. It was the same, year in and year out. Month in, and month out. And no business survives on that kind – and we commence losing their records. They’d give us – we’d lost them purposely so we couldn’t go over it and order exorbitant stocks and material that later would have to be scrapped – and that was money throwed away. I think that’s was one of the reasons that the mechanics people hated us to a certain extent. And, uh, we had another incident when Jim Goodlaw was storekeeper around 1930s – latter 20s and 30s. this same blacksmith foreman, he was a cankerous old duck and, uh, used to have a goatee and was always doing that to it and there was a controversy about a certain size bar iron – steel – we had a big iron rack, I’d reckon about, construction steel, I’d reckon it’d be two, three hundred thousand pounds of all sizes. Of course the lengths varied as they was run from the mills. And he contended there wasn’t none out there, so I sent one of my stock clerks over to show him where it was, to see if it was over there and it was over there and it was over there, and this boy went in to Mr. Connoly, told him, said, “Mr. Connoly, that there” – I think it was 1 ¼ x 4 steel, was for makin’ tie bars for the trucks, says – “That steel is layin’ right out yonder.” Says, “You’re a liar. I’ll be you $20 it ain’t out there.” And he cussed the boy out, and he came back over to my office – I mean the tears was running right down his face. He was a good-natured old country boy, and he just couldn’t take that. He was thin skinned, in a way. And he told me the story. I says, “Well, there ain’t nobody gonna talk to you that way.” I went into Jim Goodlaw – at that time Joe Campbell was the Master Mechanic. My boss went down to Joe. And I was standin’ at the window. I thought maybe something was gonna happen. I wanted to see who was going over from the Master Mechanic’s Office to the blacksmith’s shop which was about – walkin’, it’d be about 4 or 500 feet. About two minutes, I saw the assistant shop foreman running – Carl Lance. About a minute or two, my phone rung. Said, “You and Artie come down here.” That Master Mechanic told Connoly, said, “Mr. Connoly, you’ve got two choices – either remain on the job or be fired! You gonna get down on your knees and beg this man’s pardon for treating him like a damn dog.” And he made that arrogant, old, wicked – just get down on his knees and beg for that boy’s pardon. Boy we got along fine with him after that. That’s what he needed. But now, there wasn’t animosity amongst all the people. Of course in the beginning, I told you there’s a little hatred and animosity ‘cause we took the storage department away from the mechanical people and later on, about 65 years, the time the storage department was formed, it went back to them under another division name, sometime in the early 60s, after I retired. And, uh, there was a good comradeship among the men, except, they had a lot of grievances though because sometimes the pipefitters and tinners, the certain thickness of steel plates had a lot of bearing on what department worked it. You see, uh, we had 1/16, 1/32 stove pipe iron and galvanized steel – if it was thin, usually would belong to the pipefitters, but when you get up to a 3/16 and ¼ inch plate steel – that belonged to the boilermakers. And then they come to the point, there’s a lot of arguments over whose job it was to dismantle this or dismantle or restore it after it was repaired, put back on the locomotives or the cars. And that was about the greatest animosity. It was a pretty good relationship among the different people in the shops as far as I could ascertain, because if anybody got sick – any death or anything – and they passed the hat, then there was no grieving about it. It was very generous, to a fault, almost. And, I’ve seen the attitude change a whole lot because there was enough of jobs. I think, at the height, after, between World War I and World War II, we had around 23 hundred people on our payrolls. That included engineers, firemen – which was the transportation department – brakemen, and then we had the shop people too – ‘cause all that was paid for by checks. ‘Cause during the First and Second World Wars and labor was scarce, we, uh, we paid those Blacks, those laborers and stuff, off weekly to hold them. and then we’d furnish the payroll to the agent at Spencer, Errol Clap, and they would figure out how many fives, tens, ones, fifties, quarters, dimes, pennies, so they could give the man the exact amount of money. And in about 4 years of paying off weekly, the grand totals, we weren’t out but by 2 or 3 dollars in 4 or 5 years – that’s pretty good manipulation. And, uh, there was one time they didn’t pay by checks, I remember a lot of funny incidents that shouldn’t go to the public that happened on the railroads and one of them is comical – cut that off.

I remember one thing happened during the first big strike in the early 20s – which was the nationwide strike which lasted a good bit. It brought a lot of people down – some of ‘em was tailors and some of ‘em haberdashery people – didn’t know a thing in the world about locomotives or anything about ‘em and give ‘em jobs with no questions asked – it was manpower and to hold ‘em, we used to have the contact with the bootleggers, between the 18th amendment, and we made contact with the bootleggers – it wasn’t hard for me to do that, and the bootleggers, during the night, would deliver about 25 to 30 gallons in 5 and 10 gallon cans and put them in the master mechanics garage. Next day, I’d take a half-ton truck, go down and get that and bring it into the shops and we allocated about a pint, to a quart, to various people, and that’s the way we held them.

B: But going back to the railroads at Spencer, when I first went there, we had no mechanized equipment whatsoever. The only thing they had was these old warehouse trucks that had an iron axle that we’d put coal oil – that’s one grade of oil, a thick oil, on the axle that turned. No rollers, no ball bearings or nothing. And I’ve seen the equipment change drastically. You take on the, say boxcars and flatcars, I know that the seals underneath – 4 or 5 or 6 seals – used to be wooden ones – 6 x 8s mostly, and they were put together with a steel place on each end with big draft bolts – 7/8 inches that run anywhere from 20 to 30 inches in length – was about every two inches, every inch. Then later on we got the draft gear. That was an all steel end and today you have the cushion type – big knuckle. You take the couplers – when I first went on the railroad it was a little 5 x 5 shank, up and down, and, uh, with a 9 inch knuckle and the knuckle-pin was a 1 5/8 x 13 inches that goes in the knuckle head that holds the knuckle head into the, uh, knuckle. I’ve seen that grow up to a 6 x 8 and there’s a big wide butt-end that goes in the draft gear at least 8 ½ to 12 ½ inches and 6 inches thick and then also we built in our own shops approximately 4,000 pulp-wood cars, and nearly four years, I’d have to order, buy, or procure, from different steel warehouses 56 tons of structural steel a year till we built 4,000 steel cars. That was a pretty good size job in itself. ‘Course, that included rivets, and, uh, I-beams and the plates was mostly ½ inch to 5/8 inch thick and they were cut to exact size so we wouldn’t have no waste, and when they would use these plates – some department would use these plates for the pulp-wood cars, we’d have to replace that out of steel warehouses. And it kept you sort of busy being a watchdog watching it, ‘cause a lot of them didn’t want to tell ya when they used it for another purpose.

E: They weren’t using it for what they were supposed to, sometimes?

B: Yeah, that’s right.

E: What would they have used it for?
B: Other purposes. Might have used it on a locomotive.

E: Mmmm hmmm. What’s a pulpwood car?

B: Pulpwood car. You’ve seen those logs being hauled – round logs about 4 feet long, two sides in – that’s a pulpwood car. It’s lumber, trees cut down to make pulpwood out of and we call it pulpwood cars.

E: I gotcha.

B: Now, we experimented on building some different types – locomotives. I remember we took a 27 x 30 McCullough – that’s a 27-inch diameter and a 30-inch stroke piston locomotive, a six wheeler, and put the chassis of a smaller one under the tinder part to give it more power but they made it an articulated engine, we called it. But it didn’t succeed. We experimented a whole lot with air resistance and stuff. I remember when I first commenced buying fuel oil for our diesel. I was giving 8 and 9 cents a gallon for it and look what it is today. I think the last time I bought any fuel here in my house it was 94 ½ cents a gallon, and I used to buy it for 8 and 9 cents a gallon. That shows you how commodities has gone up.

E: Sure has.

B: And, I’ve seen a lot of improvements on the railroad. As you have read, perhaps, and so have others, that we are one of the 5 best governed corporations in the United States. I think the American Telephone and Telegraph Company comes first, R.J. Reynolds industry, Southern Railway and two big chain outfits. And the Southern Railway for a long time did not pay anything on its common stock, but later on they commenced giving us dividends. We got a little bit of it here, up in the bank. It sorta helps.

E: Did most of the workers for the railroad end up buying stock?

B: They let ‘em buy now, but they didn’t up to the time I retired.

E: Oh, really?

B: Yeah. I wasn’t known to be – my family bought it. I didn’t. But they sold us bonds during the war. I got bonds – I’m not bragging – I got bonds up in my safety deposit box dated back to 1941 that runs out at the end of this year. Every month – I got a $100 bond and I got ‘em all. There’s some of ‘em worth almost 3 times what it originally cost. My sister had one safety deposit box full of bonds when she died last year. They’re still laying up there.

E: Did a lot of people buy bonds regularly?

B: Yeah, they forced us to.

E: They forced you to?

B: That is, the foremans. Now you couldn’t force the craftsmen, but they highly recommended it. See, the $100 bond cost $75 and right today it’s worth $44.

Floree (B. September 22, 1911) & Stacie Holcombe

Daughters of Weaverville Trolley Owner

Interviewed by Dan Ellison and Allan Paul November 5, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Ellison: What did your father do when you were a child? What was his occupation?

Stacy: He run a streetcar

E: That is where he started off doing his

S: Well he run a streetcar when I was small, when we lived in Asheville and then later he run on a street car into Weaverville. Then after the streetcar when he bought the Prince tux and he started touring cars. Then he ended up with buses so that’s
Florence:  They hadn’t been disbanded too long after that, ‘bout 10 years

E: The buses only disbanded.

F: They ran buses up to Flat Creek, ran them up to Ox Creek, Mars Hill, and Weaverville and the usual run up to Mars Hill,

S: Here’s one of ‘em

F: Down to Mars Hill, North Carolina.

E: This is a nice picture

S: This is a street car *shows picture*

E: When was this picture taken?

S and F: We don’t know!

E: You don’t know who that is standing there?

F: That’s my father

E: That’s your father?

S: Yeah, that’s my brother

E: So what was he, a conductor?

S: Yes

E: And you were about how old when he was conductor on a streetcar? Were you just

S: Well I

F: He was on the streetcar before we moved to Weaverville.

S: Yeah

F: We lived on Ridge Creek when he, my mother, took him in on a horse to Weaverville and catch (?)

S: To catch, go to work and then she’d pick him up in the afternoon or either he’d rode back and in the first place, he didn’t know how to drive, when he was working on a street car, didn’t know how to drive a car so when the streetcar when out of business

F: He had to learn

S: He learned how to drive a car

F: Well there weren’t many cars, very very few.

S: And they had these long turn cars with the little seats in back in between. It folded down in the floor and then raised up and had that.

E: Did he get a car after the streetcar?

F&S: Yeah

E: What sort of things would he did as a conductor there, was, what was his job entailing? Would he just take the money from people?

S: Take the money

F: And when they would get to Weaverville, they’d change the seat you know, replace that, that way it didn’t turn around like trains did,

S: Come straight this way and then went back.

F: They’d change, you see

E: ‘Bout how many people used to ride to work?

F: Oh it would be full. Sometimes you would have to stand up and it too hard to drive up a runnin’ trolley cart up to Grace. And then get a transfer to go catch the Crescent and take it on up to Asheville.

E: How far was Grace to Weaverville?

F: Oh now grace is 9 miles ‘cause its 10 on the way to Asheville, ain’t that right?

E: Did your mother work at all?

F: No ,no

E: Just a housewife

F: Just a housewife.

E: Not just

F: *laughs* yeah

S: She worked! *laughs* She would not anything, she couldn’t do but one thing, she couldn’t play the piano.

E: Do y’all have any other brothers or sisters?

S: We had three brothers

E: Three brothers?

S: Mmhm, all lost, three deceased.

F: Only two of us left.

S: And of course. Uh. much later they become bus drivers. Owners of the buses after my father passed away.

F: Well of course, two of ‘em worked for my father.

E: Do you know who your father ended up getting his job as conductor?

F: No. I don’t

S: No

F: His brother, I guess, had somethin’ to do with it.

S: Yeah but he’d run a streetcar in Asheville

F: I know I was sayin’

S: Like his brother did

F: Oh, did he leave before Brad did?

S: Ooh yeah

F: Well I didn’t know that

S: Uh huh he run on streetcars from Marshall to Lewis

E: What was his name?

S: Merium J Holcombe

E: No, your uncle

F: Marshall, that was our brother

S: Oh

E: Your brother?

F: He’s older than I am but she’s the oldest

E: You mentioned someone named Brad.

S: That was our uncle that had run a streetcar in Asheville.

F: He was my father’s brother, I thought he might’ve had something to do with him getting a job but she says no.

S: No, my dad was the oldest and he run a streetcar before Uncle Bradley ever thought of going to Asheville.

F: Oh

E: How old was your father when he started working for the streetcar?

S: I don’t know,

F: He was very young,I’m sure, because I can’t remember it.

E: Was he 20?

S: ‘Cause he was only 63 when he

F: When he died

S: No

E: What year?

F: 63, he was 63

E: What year was it when he died?

S: In 43

F: 43
{Stacy and Floree whisper to each other indistinguishably}

F: Yeah, my brother was  

S: December 43

E: So that would make the railroad the Weaverville Asheville line started in 1908 or so we can figure it out,I’ill figure it out later.

F: I bet you need this.

S: I don’t need ‘em. I can’t tell you how long it’s, it’s awful to never give it a thought before my mother had passed away or somebody then I would, we could find out but no one knows now. You don’t know of anyone that would know how long the streetcar run, I mean when the streetcar started.

E: It started in 1906

F: 1906

E: 06?

S: It started in 1906

E: And your father first started off when it first, when it first started as a conductor?

F: I’m not sure

S: I don’t know! I don’t think so.

E: What sort of hours did he work? Do you know?

F: He went on the early morning

S: He went on at 6 o’clock in the morning

F: And he would get off at 7

E: But he would usually be home in the evening

F: Yeah

S: Mmhm, and home in the middle of the day and nights.

E: Did you get to see him much as a kid or was

S: No, we seen him all the time, he was home every night

E: Did you all ride the streetcar a lot?

F: Yes

S: It was on the way we had to go to Asheville

F: We didn’t have a school out here, well they had a small school but we didn’t go, when we first came to, so we rode a streetcar and got off out at New Bridge and walked a couple of miles

S: Something

F: To Woodfin School, anyway. I know I started in first grade and then when this school was built, primary school down here in 1920 something, I was in the third grade when they first finished

E: So his streetcar doubled as a school bus as well.

F: Yeah yeah oh yeah, lot of children go to school that way because we didn’t have school buses. We would ride the streetcar and we’d go to Woodfin, so did most of Weaverville that went to these little schools, then we had private schools in Weaverville

S: But we didn’t

F: But we skipped it and went out to Woodfin next, the first public schools

E: About how many little kids would there be on the streetcar in one morning?

S: Oh, I don’t know.

F: well many

S: oh yes, I don’t even remember

F: ‘Cause a lot of time I remember we had to stand up because they had to take the people that worked too you see. Some at the furniture plant here at Woodfin, different places where the men and a lot of people, you know, didn’t have cars back then. Very very few so they ride the streetcar to work.

E: Did you like riding that streetcar?

F: Oh yeah, it was fun

S: We went out to Weaver Lake years ago, why they would have on the island

F: There was a flag, you know, out on the island built up around at Lake Louise, you know, at Lake Louise and uh they had

E: Was that in your town?

S: Mmhmm and they would have dances and things down there, nights and my father would, he’d take us down there and then if he had to drive the streetcar late and bring people from Asheville out here.

E: What time do the streetcars stop at night?

S: I don’t remember

E: Your father never worked on the late shift?

S: No, he went on at 6 in the morning and he was always home at night

E: what sort of things do you remember about the streetcar? Was it just one car that ran or

F: No, no, they would pass one another at the uh switch out here towards New Bridge

S: Oh, they had several cars but there were two on the line all the time

F: One would leave Asheville and one would leave Weaverville and then pass each other. ‘Cause I remember Mr. Rick Tallen was, uh, on th,e yeah but Mr. Blue, Baloo was that his name anyway, he was going one way and somebody had done that and had a wreck and killed one of ‘em.

E: Really

F: Yeah, that happened

S: Mr. Blue.

F: Yeah, Mr. Blue

S: He was smokin’.

F: I know I was just a small something, I couldn’t remember

S: No, they had two on the track at the same time, one leaving Weaverville, one leaving Asheville and then about half way between here and Asheville they had a switch, they called it a change, go around you know what I mean

F: Put it on another track

S: And then they’d pass

E: And one time they forgot to switch or something

F: Yes

S: Or something like that they forgot to switch and they hit head on.

F: That’s the only wreck I ever remember knowing and I missed it.

E: And it was one person that was killed

F: Yeah, I think he was the only one

S: Mmhmm, I think some more was hurt but that was the only one.

E: Well that must have been pretty big news

S: It was especially

F: If any issues happened, it made the papers. Yes, I remember he had a mustache, I remember that from his pictures in the streetcar.

S: He was older than our dad

F: Yes

S: Tall man I can kind a picture him.

F: I can too

E: Was he the conductor?

F: Yes

S: He was the conductor on one of the cars.

F: My dad happened to not be on there

S: No, my dad wasn’t on that one.

E: But he wasn’t the conductor on the other one.

S: He was conductor on one of’ em. And he wasn’t on one that morning, I mean with Mr. Blue

F: He was the motor man

S: Yeah, Mr. Blue was motorman drivin’

F: You see daddy was a conductor, he didn’t drive it.

S: He walked up and down the aisle

F: And take the money and punch the ticket and this, that, and the other

E: How much would it cost when it first started?

F: I don’t know.

S: We didn’t pay.

F: I don’t know but anyhow, we’d find a way

S: To hop on anyhow

F: But I tell you what, when Daddy put those turn cars on one, it was 25 cents

S: I guess

F: I think it was
:; That’s all I know, I just got on and sat down

F: Yea, that was it

E: That’s lucky when your father is the conductor

F: Yeah and that too, after that we never paid the fee cause Daddy got the print tax? (14:47) because we got turn cars and we had buses.

S: And then we rode the, like uh, going into the bus stations when we would ride the Trailway or Greyhound, we still had to pay so we didn’t have to pay no bus fee so we just went.

F: But Daddy was only local bus that was in the bus station

S: My father had started the bus in 1920

E: You probably remember that a little bit better

S: Yes I do

E: How did he end up starting the bus line?

S: Well the streetcar wasn’t running and people didn’t have no transportation

F: Any way you could make a living you see like the touring cars, we had several turn cars

S: Mhm drivers.

E: Now touring cars, what do you mean by that?

F: Uh well it’s something like a limousine, you know like what the airport has now and they had these rumble seats or I don’t know if they call ‘em rumble seats

S: No, it was inside

F: It was inside too and they’d push down

S: You could take about three, two or three in the front seat with the driver and about three to four in the back

F: I, uh, hold about 10

S: And then about two to three of these seats

F: But back then, that was about it

S: On a transportation from Weaverville to Asheville

F: And he made good money especially after, I mean during the war. You see they took out all the cars, you know, and everyone would ride the street car, I mean the bus

S: ‘Cause that was the only transportation from Weaverville to Asheville

F: Course he just bought the franchise from Asheville to Weaverville and then he purchased Weaverville to Asheville to Mars Hill and then he extended that to Ridge Creek and Ox Creek and into Marshall and into Craggin,

S: Down to Craggin

F: On all of ‘em, all buses had those, had buses on all those but he made a livin’

E: So after the Asheville to Weaverville..

F: He started touring, it kept buildin’ up.

E: Did he have a car when he first started the touring business?

F: No.

S: It started with one car, then in no time he got two cars

F: Then he got three or four.

S: And then he didn’t keep the cars here long, he got a bus

F: Buses

S: Didn’t get but one bus at a time ‘til he had a whole line of buses

F: Oh and he had a lot.

E: Did he kept the tourin’ cars going while he was starting the bus stop operation as well?

F: No he sold the tourin’ cars, you know, when he bought his first bus. He’d maybe sell one or two. But he kept enough to keep

S: To fill in if something, if they needed a short trip. Then of course after he got buses, he made a lot, well my brothers did a lot of trips, specials.

E: But where would they go?

S: Anywhere that they wanted to go, down to Florida, Washington, Tennessee

F: He’d just take a bus load down to, uh, tuber hills (?) you know

S: Manteo and then he’d take Mars Hill

F: College

S: College football, and baseball to take the teams to play ball

F: And high school. I had to go up and help him. See they didn’t have activity buses like they do now, so they would hire the local buses.

E: Was he driving the buses as well when he started that, the driving of touring cars?

S: No, drivin’ the buses was, the tourin cars was way before the schools, just the high schools you know back in my day, we had the small schools

E: I mean was he just running the business or was he also drivin’ some of the cars?

S: Yeah

F: Yeah

S: He did the driving, he had extra drivers

F: Several

E: Did y’all ever get involved in the business at all?

S: Yes, I was

F: She was a bookkeeper for a little while, part time

S: For five years

E: Oh, when did you start as the bookkeeper?

S: 43 when my father passed away. He had a bookkeeper before that, and I worked in Asheville, then after he passed away, then I started staying at the garage, office and things down there in Weaverville.

E: Did you more or less take over the business when he passed away?

S: My brothers in the family, it was a family

F: Three families

S: And my mother. Her and I, it was left to the family

E: Did y’all have separate jobs that you took care of?

S: Yes

E: What did your brothers do?

S: Drivers

E: They were..

S: Drivers, one brother was, well in fact two of ‘em was overseeing the company then President, Vice President, and things like that. But they did drive, anything that needed to be done, paintin’ a bus, greasin’ one, workin’ on it

F: Well they had mechanics and all so they could do it themselves

S: You know what I mean, just general work. We had a large garage

E: How many buses were there when you, in 1943, when you, when your father passed away?

S: 18

E: Did you add any more buses while

S: Yeah

F: Oh yeah, during the wa,r when Daddy died, we had quite a few and then my father Mac Daniel (?) bought three or four more

S: Oh yeah and then later on bought more.

E: When did y’all stop running buses?

S: 70?


F: ‘Cause we got so old

S: After the Bill

E: I see

S: Yeah

F: After everybody got cars.

E: Where did you, did you used to ride the trolley with your father when you were just a little kid?

S: Oh yes

E: Would you just stay on there all day?  

S: No

F: No

S: We didn’t have time.

E: Didn’t have time? Well what were you doin’?

S: Well you had to do work at home, Buster!

F: We had a cow and chickens, yep.

S: When we were small, but no, we go ride if we would want to stay all day

E: You never went around there and played on the trolley car during the day?

F: Nope

S: No

F: It never did sit there for long, it just came and when passengers came in, got seated then it would start back. It runs, you know, regular,

S: Every hour.

E: Did they take freight?

S: Yep

F: Uh uh

E: They did?

F: And milk. they would stop and never hear it ride back up like louis (?) and, uh, dairies and they’d bring these big tall milk cans, load ‘em up and they had a post arm there up high so they could scoop it into the baggage car.

S: Did they hold the mail?

F: Yeah and that carried the mail

S: Mail and baggage things like that on the trolley.

E: Was there a separate room on the cab of the trolley?

S: Yeah

F: They called it the baggage room.

E: Where would that have been located?

S: In the back of the car

E: Which, when it reached the end of the line, they would just turn the seats around

F: Yes and I just wondered how they did that baggage train but I don’t know

E: Yeah, I was just wondering that too because the baggage would end up at the front of the car.

F: I don’t remember that either. But I do know they did carry mail and they would carry milk.

S: Yep ‘cause I can remember sitting with my father with that bag of mail on the floor.

F: But where I don’t know.

E: Did they change the design of the cars at all?

F: No, they have always looked to me like that. I couldn’t tell ya. Now how come it colored, I don’t know. ‘Cause it wasn’t they just put this color on it cause the street cars were all just like this, I mean that they were black and had some red on it, I think. Didn’t it have a little red? Yeah, you can tell, yeah

E: Well these pictures here were just hand painted by someone

F: Yes because uh

S: That’s the red old car

F: He had little white letters on it like that

S: In the summer they had a car that was all open, open the windows and things was all open. They would ride that maybe like at night, when they would be all coming to Weaverville maybe all special or sending people to this place or a different places and they’d have this open car.

E: Open roof as well?

S: No, nuh uh,

E: Just the windows

S: Just like this but it doesn’t have uh

F: I thought we had one, did we ever find it?

S: I couldn’t find it, we had one but it was all open, these windows were all open down to there. Right along there.

E: How about during the winter there, it must have gotten pretty cold

S: Well, we didn’t use it but for special, hardly ever used it at all

F: More for sightseeing you know

S: They didn’t use it on the line for everyday

E: Just did they have heat in the winter?

S&F: Oh yes

E: Do you know if that would have been oil burners of some sort in there or

F: I couldn’t tell you that

S: I do’nt know

F: But they did have heat

S: Yeah

E: Only a few more questions, if you could describe a typical day in your father’s life as a trolley man, what would

F: That’s too far back for me

E: And you said he’d have to get to work at 6, what time would he have to get up in the morning?

S: I don’t know, 5 o’clock, I guess.

F: Yeah, Mama always sat out there while he had his breakfast.

E: Did he wear a special uniform?

S: Yep

F: He had a uniform on

E: Did he like that uniform a lot?

F: Nah, he didn’t like it.

S: He was a very neat little fella

E: Do you know how many uniforms he had?

F: Well, I guess he had two, that I know of

E: Do you know what it looked like?

S: It was navy blue

E: Navy blue, what about the buttons?

F: Well they were brass

E: They were brass buttons, did he take a lot of pride in it?

S: Oh yeah, he was very neat

E: Did he have a watch?

F: Oh yeah

S: He had a pocket watch, then later of course he got a

E: Wrist watch?

S: Oh yeah

E: How did your mother feel about it, about working for the trolley, when your father worked on the trolley?

F: I mean anything to make a living is honest because she was always backing everything he did.

E:  Did she seem to take pride?

F: Oh yes

E: How about in his uniform, did she like it, did she take pride in that as well?

F: Oh yes, starchin’, fixin’, cleanin’ shirts, I remember that.

S: And white shirts

F: But you don’t do that no more.

E: He wore a white shirt?

S: Yep, I never seen my father in a colored shirt.

F: I don’t reckon I do either.

E: Did he wear a tie as well?

S: Yes

E: Was it, what kind of a tie was it? Regular tie? Bow tie?

F: No, it was regular, I guess it matched his uniform, you know, ‘cause that’s really all he wore you know, except on Sunday when you dressed up. He had his regular suit. Maybe a colored tie. But I’m sure it was solid.

E: And you said your father came home for lunch, right?

S: I guess, that’s been a long time ago! I know he was home when it was the buses, but I hardly remember the streetcars.

F: He couldn’t come home on the streetcars because he hardly had time, I can’t remember.

E: So where would he eat?

F: Uptown.

S: In Asheville

E: Did your mother pack a lunch for him?

F: No

E: What kind of things did he eat?

S: U,h anything he could find. No, he was pretty good, he liked vegetables and meat and things, dessert.

E: Was it a good paying job, conductor?

S: Yes,

E: Was that one of the better jobs in the community?

F: Oh yes,

S: At that time, it was, sure.

E: Did people look up to him because of that?

S: Uh huh. My father was always admired by people, young people too. When he had the buses.


E: I have a few more questions here, how many days a week did your father work?

F: 7

E: 7?

F: He probably rotate, you know,

S: He was off some

F: Yeah, I know he was because he shingled our house. When he had

E: When he had one day off or two days off.

F: Well no, I don’t remember

S: I don’t remember

E: Not to be asking about religion, but did y’all go to church?

F: Oh yes

E: Do you remember him going to church with y’all?

F: Methodist

S: Methodist church

E: He would have that time off to go to church on Sunday?

F: Yep

E: Uh let’s see, did he have a badge on his uniform?

S: Had a badge on his cap, I think, yeah

F: Yep it had a number on it.

S: It had a number right here, don’t ya see. It was brass. It looked like the buttons.

E: What would the number be? What would it signify?

S: Maybe what number he was to work? Or I don’t know.

F: I couldn’t tell ya.

S: I couldn’t tell ya that.

E: Was there a logo for the trolley car, a design? Did somebody design to represent it all?

S: The

E: The trolley
S: The line was there as long as I can remember my father going to work and I don’t know.

F: Well that’s it up there.

E: Do y’all still have his uniform?

S: No

E: A cap or badge or anything like that?

F: No, I don’t know what Mama did with it

S: I don’t either

F: I guess,

S: After he left the streetcar and went to the other business, I don’t guess she didn’t keep them, I don’t guess. ‘Cause I don’t remember having ‘em.

E: Did the bus drivers have uniforms?

F: Yes

E: What was their uniform like?

F: Gray

S: Gray with a blue stripe down there and some had fitted jackets. They had two different kinds, some had short jackets that button down and

F: An Eisenhower jacket

S: And some had longer coats and they had a cap with their number on it, oh, for how many years they worked or what number they where.

E: And those were badges that they had or

S: Uh huh, my father didn’t wear a uniform but my brothers did and the bus drivers all did wear uniforms.

E: Why didn’t your father wear a uniform? Any particular reason?

F: Well I guess he was just the manager of it and didn’t wanna wear it.

S: We don’t know he just didn’t, I never saw him with one except streetcars.

E: What would he usually wear?

S: Suit

E: A suit, any type of particular color?

F: I don’t know, he had several.

S: Most any kind, different colors

E: And always a white shirt

S: Always a white shirt

F: And all our brothers wore white shirts

S: All my brothers wore white shirts

E: You got a collared shirt on here, both of you do.

F: But they just always liked white shirts

E: What was your physical description of the inside of the trolley? Can you describe it?

F: Now I couldn’t tell you that, I was too little.

E: Do you remember it at all?

F: I do remember this because they had these cards and the people would advertise their businesses and get so much and daddy did in his buses and in

S: In the buses you had

F: Each side, you know like a cafe or a club or a dance hall, they would advertise and they had so much in these cars. I remember them the one or two times we had to wait’ til he got out of, got finished putting those cars up so he could get out. Very vividly I remember that. And they were cheerful in the, uh, advertisement. Do you remember that?

S: Yeah I remember putting the signs up in the buses for sale. But I don’t remember havin’ them in the trolley but we did. I remember putting many of the cards inside the bus.

E: Were those mostly Weaverville businesses?
F&S: No no. Asheville.

E: What were the seats like in the trolley? Where they wooden? Upholstered?

F: I don’t know, they weren’t upholstered.

E: Were they benches? Or individual seats?

F: No, they were individual seats and up at the front

S: No, you would sit two on a seat

F: Oh, that’s right.

S: Now they were something like this and there was an aisle down them in the middle of the trolley

F: It made something similar to the buses except they weren’t upholstered

S: But I can remember they had, uh, they were iron

E: They were iron

F: They were heavy

S: They were armed benches but as far as the seat, I can’t tell you but the back of ‘em around, that was iron.

F: I think they had a kinda cushion under something, you know.

S: And I know my father would always come through when he would get to Weaverville

F: He had a lot of stops you see.

S: He called up there and he would go just before where we stopped. He would let people off whoever was in there and he would take his hand and lift the seat and turn it to face back. Going back to Asheville. And when he would get to Asheville, he would turn ‘em to face Weaverville and then people would get on and sit down. And the seat would sit two people on each side and there was an aisle between.

E: Was the floor wooden on the inside?

S: I don’t know. They had the heat under the seats

F: But and that too, I know somebody would get on

S: Something like a train.

F: And, and, uh, they would have the children sit there but they wouldn’t wanna do that so my father would come over and change the seat so they would face their mother and daddy.

S: Something like a train.

F: When they sat down.

E: So they were together facing

F: Yeah, on account of children

E: Did your father have any particular way that he would call out all aboard or something like that?

F: Yes, he said that and when it was dark down here, he would stand on the steps just like he was right here. No, he wasn’t on the step but he usually step down on this lower step and he would, if all the passengers were on and it was clear, he would, why he would throw up his hand and say all aboard so the motorman would know to start the trolley. It’s just like the trains.

E: Did he kinda sing the names that he was going to? (?)

F: No

S: He would just say Stoney Knob or

F: Woodfin

S: Everybody knew where they were goin’. It wasn’t like strangers, they knew where they were gonna go get off.

F: But a lot of people had visitors

S: Had visitors, especially summer

F: In the summer especially, so he would know if they were visitors and he would call out the towns

E: Would he make a show out of it for them?

F: No

S: My dad wasn’t a showman. He was very quiet

F: He would call out the towns

S: Stops

E: Did you ever ride with any of the conductors?

F: I don’t know

S: Oh yes, Mr. Bill Garrison was a conductor and uh, Mr. Tom Garrison, and Mr. Mull and Mr. Blue was Mr. Mull’s motorman and my father and Mr. Bill Garrison was conductor. Those were both small groups,

F: All different ones, Sam Robinson

E: Were they all more or less the same? Did they

S: Yeah, everybody was about the same.

F: I can’t remember if Sam Robinson was a motorman or not.

E: Was there lights inside the trolley?

F: Ph yes.

E: Were they electric or

F: I couldn’t tell you that, I guess they were.

S: Yeah and the heat was electric ‘cause, uh, they would pull the switch under there.

F: Yhey would pull the switch under the trolley up there. It had the electric wire

E: Right

F: Just like a wheel up and down

S: It was run by electric wire runnin’ up and down

E: Was that at all dangerous?

F: Well, there wasn’t too many accidents on it

E: Were they pretty well kept up, the trolleys?

F: Oh yeah

E: Who would clean them?

F: Well now, I couldn’t tell you that

S: Electric line

F: I couldn’t tell you who cleaned it

S: I thought it was

F: But they had colored people

S: It was run by electric and the heat was electric under the seats. I can remember that because I remember my brother put his shoes on it even though it was kinda wet and they had to pull the switch.

E: So the cleaning staff you were saying, they would clean ‘em?

S: We don’t know about that

F: I don’t know who did it but I do know they had colored men working and especially at New Bridge there

E: Well what would they have been doing?

F: Well this place out here, they would clean the seats and one car could go in this side and one could go in there and there were two cars out there at that little place. The building is still there, is it out at New Bridge. Yeah

E: Was the trolley full on the last run, everybody wanted to get on the last ride?

F: Imagine so because I remember Mama talking about it, sayin’ something and he took Levan and Marvin with him that day.

E: Were you all on the last run that day?

F: No, I don’t remember.

S: I guess we were. I guess we could have. Maybe we were so just used to it that you was, you know what I mean we would just be so used to him going to work that we didn’t take that much -ttention to it.

F: Then of course, baby brother wasn’t born yet.

E: Do you remember the day after the last run?

S: Ye s I mean I just know that my father was home.

E: Did you ask ‘em what was goin’ on at that time?

F: Do you remember when Daddy took that sign down at the depot?

S: Sorta, it’s cause they built a new highway.

F: Yeah, they tore it down when they built the new highway. And now you see the new highway, when it was built, they had to take out the cross ties, but the highway was built where the streetcar ran.

E: Now did they started taking the track and the ties up pretty soon after he closed down?

S: Oh yeah

F: Yeah, because this old Weaverville Road, you know

S: That’s the way my father started his business from going down you know, down by the front of the cafe building and down Rims Creek Road, and out at Stoney Knob, which is now the highway. Well there wasn’t no highway there then.  

Fred Sloan Baird (Born February 9, 1887)


Interviewed by Daniel Ellison & Allan Paul, September 5, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Fred Baird: I can remember in Asheville, when they used mules to pull the streetcar. They used, uh, blocks to build the paved roads all our paved roads was built out of wooden blocks and a big colored fella, Black fella, pulled the firewagon in Weaverville.

Dan Ellison: Pulled it himself?

B: Yes. When there was a fire, he pulled the firewagon. And he stalled it up there someway or another and the house burnt up and then they got horses. I remember the first horses that they got for the fire wagons in Asheville.

E: When abouts would that have been? 

B: What say?

E: When about would that have been? How old were you when…

B: Oh, I was, when that town was building all of this, 9 or 10 years old, something along like that. And about along that age when they had the mules pulling the streetcars. And I know when the first streetcars was built, I didn’t work on that line, but I worked on the line from Weaverville to Asheville, and Poppa helped build the narrow-rail gauge line that runs into Burnsville now, not Burnsville, its.

Allan Paul: Yanceyville?

B: Sawtaw River. It runs in there somewhere or another. Poppa helped build that. They called it narrow gauge. Poppa worked on that. After he was, you know, after he was grown. And then in the fall of the year, Poppa and a whole lot of them would put sacks on their back and would go and get salt, and I’ll try to find out where that was. It was something or another, it took them about 2 days to go there and back and that’s the salt that we had each year. And it was Tennessee or South Carolina, one got in a fight over it and killed up several people and they stopped that, bout the salt one state said that the salt belonged to them, ‘nother state said that the salt belong to them and then that stopped Poppa from going over there, but that’s the way we got the salt, each year

E: Backing up for a moment now, how old were you when you got your first job?

B: I was about 13 or 14 years old. I was carrying water and such things like that when I was building the powerhouse, then after I went to the streetcar line was next, then when I helped them build that lake was next.

E: What did you do, building the streetcar line?

B: Well, my duties was carrying water and carrying steel to the blacksmith and have it shortened, you know, having to shorten the steel, and carry the steel, and, and uh, getting swabs to swab out the holes where they was blasting and such things like that. And then after I got a little larger, I drove two mules –Tobe and Beck.  And I, the way that they do, they back these carts up to the, where they’s loading, grading the roads, you know, and you fill it full and then I’d jump on the shave, sit up on the shave and usually go down, these mules go down to the dump, I didn’t have a thing to do, but when they got down there, it was on latches, thing, you know, and that would dump the dirt and they’d follow back – turn around and trot all the way back to the — and turn right around didn’t have no turn-a-round, but I’d sit — here’s the shaves, you know, and I was driving right up here next to the mule’s shoulders on the shave, that what I done after I got the load– when they was building the streetcar line.

E: How many other people were working on that with you?

B: Oh, I don’t know – it’s a good many people working on it.

E: Did you do that job all by yourself or was there somebody helping you?

B: What with the mules?

E: Mmmm hmmm

B: No, I was the one – nobody helped me with the mules. You didn’t have to guide them or nothing like that. The mules know more than the company president about such things like that. You see them mules would get up and would come right up there, back right up there to where they loading and when they holler something or another, I jump up there on the shave and the mules go right down there where they dumpin’ that dirt, turn around and back up and then when I dump it they, then they pull that thing back, they go right back and do the same thing — I didn’t have to say “yeehaw” or nothing. The mules know that they own selves,

E: About how far was it that you had to.

B: It was so far. The further the cut was, the further the dump, you see. Some of them places had to be filled in when they dump the mules would go over there. I mean, would dump that up fill that up, then go over there where they was makin’ that cut. So, it was a hundred yards, some of it was 2 or 300 yards. But anyhow, those mules know exactly where to go to,

E: Did you do any singing or anything while you were working?

B: I don’t know if I did or not. don’t know [Laughs] about the singing or anything like that. I don’t know anything in particular, I was just, we was workin

P: Did you start building the line from the Asheville end or from the Weaverville end?

B: Both ends.

P: Both? And you met in the middle?

B: And here’s what happened. I don’t know, but they’d work the poor people practically to death. They was a stake there in the middle and whoever got to that stake first, they give ‘em a bonus of some kind — ‘course they call it a bonus now– I don’t know what they called it then. And then they’d get in there and work just like anything trying to get — and I remember when we got to the middle out there, but they both was close enough so that they could talk to one another. And they was working like everything –there was a steel peg down in the middle, and the ones that got the road graded to that point, why they got the bonus– of some kind. And I was on in towards Weaverville.

E: Were you on the winning side?

B: I don’t know whether I was or not. I didn’t get nothing as I know of [Laughs], I might have been, but I don’t remember getting anything.

E: How much were you getting paid for that job?

B: Oh, I was getting good pay then. I was getting 75¢ a day, and Poppa started off at a dollar and a quarter a day.

E: Your father worked on that also?

B: Yes sir. He was a steel driver too. He drove steel

P: After you graded the line, how soon after that did they start laying the rail and the crossties?

B: Well, they laid the rail and the crossties along mostly as they went along. There was a lady called Aunt Genny Briton –she come here with the railroad when they was building the first Southern Railroad up the river. She come here with that gang, driving steel, and then helped put on them, driving them spikes. And she could drive that much spike and they say, “Hey Gen” say “make a river racket”. I never will forget it and she’d hit that steel, make some kind of racket with that — just a plum tune- driving them spikes and she’d make that tune and when she got through she’d hit that spike and put it plum down to the bottom. Aunt Genny Briton.

E: Do you remember the tune at all – any particular tune?

B: No, uh, I don’t know it was just a tune that she make with the steel, just made a kind of a tune with the steel. But they had some kind of a something or other when they was a layin’ that steel. Say, “Boys don’t cha line ‘em just a little bit” and “Line ‘em just a hair”, and all such stuff like that. And they’d be singin’, you know, and they’d be two in the middle, one on that side and one this side and one on that side and one that side, there, and they jump as far backwards — as far as me to over there when they line that – pickin’ up that steel. The six of ‘em, you know, pick up that steel and they say “Won’t cha line ‘em” and they jump over there and put that steel near the place and say “Just a little bit, just a little bit”, till they got it to its place. And there’d be a man down there sighting that steel, see they didn’t have nothing else, you know. He’d be sighting that steel, see if it was in place.

E: Was everybody that was working on that Black, at the time?

B: No, no they was Black and White, was working there. Everybody they could get.

P: Now, did you have a work train as they lay the ties?

B: No. They wasn’t like no trains – nobody heard tell of nothing like that.

P: No work car behind you carrying steel?

B: No, no, no.

P: Did they haul the steel in by wagon?

B: By wagons, by wagons. No there wasn’t nothing like no trains and cars or nothing like that then. Why — did you know that the first car that, uh, was 1917 and 18. First cars that ever come in that country. ‘Cause my wife, she was up there at Beech and somebody come along with a car and she run in the woods (laughs), They said – there’s 4 or 5 of them here, but they hadn’t never seen a car, you know, and they didn’t know what the thing was. And somebody on Reems Creek bought a car, I think that was in 1917 or 18.

E: Do you remember the first time you saw a car?

B: Well, the first time I saw a car was in, let’s see, in 19 and 18. See, I went in the war in the army in 1917 and I stayed in the army until 1919, well I was wounded and gassed in the army and I come back from the army, I come back as a litter patient and stayed at the, well they sent me up and the bags to St. Louis, then they sent me back to Washington – no to New York, to Madison Square Garden — at that hotel, and then they shipped me from there to Kennelsworth and found out I was gassed and shipped me to Oteen and I stayed at ‘teen 5 years, slept outdoors wasn’t a building nowhere. Slept outdoors, and then they sent me there to Mount Alto, above Philadelphia, up there at that sanitorium, government sanitorium, and I stayed there till ’27 and they discharged me as an arrested case of TB, up there.

E: Getting back to the trolley again, let’s see, Alan’s kind of interested in that, and I am too. Did you ride the trolley much, yourself?

B: Why yeah, but they was Jim Crowed. We had to ride in the back.

E: How much did it cost for you to ride it? 

B: 10 or 20¢ or something like that.

P: Was there a difference in price for a Black man and a White man?

B: No. Same price. All the same price.

E: Did you have to get in from the back also?

B: No. Got in the front and went to the back.

E: Did you know the conductor?

B: No. I don’t. That’s the truth. I couldn’t call up the name to save my life.

E: Had you ever met any of the other people that worked on the trolley like the motormen or the owner perhaps?

B: No. You see after I went into the army in 1917, well I was out of Weaverville around there until ’48. And I ain’t met none of them and then there’s none of them living now that worked on there when I was working on there. Cause I was nothing but a kid then, you know, and them people, most of them that was working was older than I am, you know, 93 years old, so that would make them over 100 years old.

E: What was the ride like on the trolley?

B: Well, it was pretty good. It was pretty good.

E: Was it comfortable? Was it..

B: Well, you know, they didn’t have comfortable seats like they got now. They had just some kind of a wooden seats first, wasn’t nothing like that.

P: Was it a pretty ride?

B: What say?

P: Was it a pretty ride?

B: Yes. Nice ride from Asheville to Weaverville.

E Would you usually just go all the way to Asheville?

B: What say?

E: What would you be taking the trolley for?

B: Well, we’d go back into Asheville. You see there wasn’t no hardware stores or nothing like that. Morrison was the first hardware store. First store that we ever owned — got it from Dunham’s music house. And, uh, it was as I say – that was the only way we got to get anything. Over there at, uh, old man Coines, he made all the clothes that we had. Down there at, uh, they call it Bagstown now. There’s an old mill down there now. And he put up- he was from Germany, he was a German and he put up that wooden mill there and he made woolen clothes– all the woolen clothes. My mother knitted all of our socks and such things like that.

E: How about your sisters. Did they, were they making the clothes also?

B: No. My sisters didn’t, because, my sister married when she was about 16 years old and as I say, there wasn’t three  of her. And she stayed at home and just helped Momma and that. You know 16 children, it took a whole lot of work for us washing and different things like that.

E: I can imagine. Were you around when the trolley closed?

B: No, I wasn’t here,

E: That would have been while you were in the war.

B: No, I wasn’t here when it closed.

E: How did you, were there any other questions about the trolley?

P: Do you remember anything so far as details, childhood impressions about the trolley, or I guess you were pretty much in your 20s by the time you left for the war – the color of it or..

B: No, I can’t. I can’t even tell the color of the trolleys or anything like that. But I know there was a trolley line and you know it had a line up there at the wheel and that line was hooked up in that wheel and that’s what run the trolley. But see, I can remember when there wasn’t an electric light and a match or nothing. Remember the first cookstoves ever come into Weaverville. And Poppa’d take two dry sticks and rub ’em together like that and get fire. Or take a flint and hit it like that and get the spark to go into some kind of a something wool, something like that, and spark and catch fire. That’s where we got the fire. Wasn’t nothing like no matches or nothing like that.

Hugh Williams (B. July 12 1890)

Fireman, Brakeman, and Conductor

Interviewed by Allen Tullos February 23, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Hugh Williams: But I made it up in my mind if I ever got me a regular job I was gonna stay on that damn job as long as I live. And I hooked up with Seaboard Airline Railroad. 

Allen Tullos: How old were you?

W: Not quite 16 years old yet… you can figure it out for yourself. I went to work for Seaboard April the 6th 1906 on the finest switch engine on Hamlet yard, the 625, switch engine 625. 

T: Well, lets go back just a little bit before the engine, tell me a little bit more about what your parents did. Where they farmers? Or 

W: Well, farmin is all you could do back then 

T: Was it like tenant, were they tenant farmers? 

W: Yea, well yea. They didn’t have a damn thing

T: So they moved every crop season 

W: Yea it was like that every move. Like Zeb Vance one time tell congress up there about ten or five was moving in the south one of those fellows from Massachusetts jumped up and he said ‘why isn’t that a whole lot of trouble to move every year?’ and old Zeb said ‘no, all they have to do is piss out the fire and call the dog’.

T: Welp, so you took a notion pretty soon that you were gonna go to work it looks like. 

W: Indeed I did. I heard the whistle blowin about 6 miles up, down the railroad. I could hear those damn trains runnin and I knew I wanted to be on one so bad when I was a little fella. I’m goin to the railroad when I get big enough. I, I’ve got, I’ve got two big things that everybody got. I was run off for being too young and then I was run off for being too damn old. I had it both ways. I left there and come down on the fifth of August 1960, 5th, 5th of August. And uh, I stayed in until I was 70 years old. 

T: Did you ever think about any other type of job that you wanted to pick up?

W: Lord nothin but railroading. That’s all I wanted to do! Went down to this place one time and the railroad was about a mile and a half from the house. And about half way up to the top of the hill you could see the train ya know from over there. And I’d always hike up the side of that hill just to see a train go by. I love them trains. I’d do it again. I lay in bed thinkin about how I was a little boy watchin those trains go by over there. They really can haul. 

T: Do you remember when you first went to see about gettin that job? 

W: Oh yes yes, 

T: Tell me about that

W: Well I had to go to Hamlet to get the job and I lived 18 miles from Hamlet and uh id go up to Hartman then 14 miles over to Hamlet. I believe it was 14 somethin like that. Catch a train at Hartman, go over to Hamlet. Got over to Hamlet about 6:00 one evenin there wasn’t no train til next mornin. Got in a little hotel and went to bed, the next morning I went down to the roundhouse and see about gettin a job. Mr. Frank Lewis who was this young fellow had fallen in Hamlet with Seaboard. One of the nicest men I ever knew. And he gave me a job. He says, “boy you look mighty young well I’m gonna give you a job.” Oh excuse me. “I’m gonna give you a job.” and he did. Next mornin I went onto engine 625. Stayed there til June the 1st I believe it was it quite, didn’t matter what time it was. Lets see it would have been June the 1st. We come out with all men working and persons had to be 21 years old. That let me out. And damn I cried like a kid. Just four months from then I moved on to Southern. Went out of here braking at 72 of August the 5th 1906. I stayed there til, oh excuse me boys excuse me, I stayed there braking, fired, I mean brakin runnin the train. When did I quit? August the 1st, 1960. 

T: So you worked really 55 years then, for the Southern?

W: Uhh 54 years workin 6 days. Sure 6 days. Cuss me out you, you can do it.

T: Let’s go back just a little bit and get, describe what you did those few months you were working on the Seaboard when you were talk about firing, give us a little bit more description of what all that was like. What was your job, what time did you get up in the morning, what did you have to do, how long did you work and what did you do?

W: Oh well I uh, I had to report to the yard office, the yard there was morning over the yard at like 7 o’clock, fire the switch engine all day. Ten hours. Got a dollar and 20 cents a day for 10 hours. Big money. Then I caught some extra on the way down on what we call back ups. Light engines that run back down the track to Lumberton all down there in the watermelon, watermelon country. Loads of watermelons 18- 20 loads of watermelons and bring em out. We’d run 2 or 3 of them every night. I fired a lot of them not a lot of them, some of em part of the time. 

T: Now when you were firing, describe exactly what you’re doing.

W: Well all you had to do was, when you’re on the road you get you about 25 tons of coal on the tender. You take your shovel place your coal in the firebox and burn it. That’s about as any good I can describe it for ya. How bout that Hugh.

Hugh Young: Very good. Firing an engine it was action in art you didn’t throw your fire, er coal in the fire box. You had to evenly distribute it. So it might have a place that, you have an even fire or blow over the entire thing. You just didn’t pitch it in straight, you dropped it in there. Follow what I’m sayin here?

T: Yes sir.

Y: And later on in years, even before my days, it came up it had a distributor. And the fire came up, er, coal came up the stoker and you had a flapper stoker. And right up in the bottom of the fire box this think flipped back n forth and evenly distributed coal. And that’s what Mr. Williams is tryin to tell ya.

W: Now you know Hugh was in my (something) a lot. It was a lot. And the reason I know it was a lot was because I know men who fired for 25 years and never was a fireman, you know that. Never could fire to save his life. It was a lot. One of the best steam makers overall  was old Cecil Garland. He could make the most steam off the toughest engine I ever saw. Cecil Garland. 

T: Did somebody teach you? Did any particular person teach you how to do that? 

W: No, I just caught it up that’s what I know how to do, ride and go to the end with the special trainin I know a lot of fellas were trained and could never do it. 

T: And how long would you work at any one time? 

Y: Are you referring to one trip? 

W: Longest trip I ever was on duty was 85 hours from Monroe to here. 

Y: Explain that to em. you didn’t work continuously 85 hours 

W: Oh no we wasn’t working sittin on your butt most of the time but we were still on duty. On duty 85 hours. From Monroe, here. 

T: Well when you came over to work for the southern what was your job then?

W: Brakin, brakin on the other side. And I broke in, oh hell, 56-54 years, 54 years workin 6 days. 

T: now when you first started could you describe again what you were doing, what the job was about, what kind of tasks you had to do if you were brakeman. 

W: You would do whatever the conductor told you to do. Like you didn’t know anything. Everyman is an apprentice with a new man he doesn’t know anything, just to do what other people tell him to do. Luckily you’d admire that.(?) Cut that all don’t, don’t. 


T: So exactly what, do you remember exactly how you would have what the first kind of job you would have done, what was your learning to be a brakeman what, what did they first have you doing? 

W: Braking, you’d get with your crew and you’d ride the road, had to ride the road thirty days and then they’d ride with other crews learn what to do. Then you’d get a pretty good rides in those thirty days. Learn a hell of a lot about being a brakeman but you make it alright somehow or another. Everybody looked out for everybody in them old days. If one had abandoned then none of them would have ever made it. Each one looked out for the other. 

T: Well lets go back a bit you were talking about how they would send everybody out for a thirty day run to, to

W: To learn somethin

T: Mmhm to learn. Now uh would they be paying you at this time to 

W: Yeah, no no you didn’t get a damn thing! You get 5 dollars a day now! You didn’t get nothin in those days. 

T: They would feed ya i guess

W: Oh yea you could eat persimmons, they were green and ripe in that time of the year. You get em out of the garden hittin the roof and everything you know. 

T: Did you have any friends, any other people that you knew who lived out in the country who might have come in and work for the railroad?

W: Nawww I had never seen a soul here. Oh for a couple years I come here and never seen a soul all just normal folk.

T: Where would people come from to come to work here. Would they be coming mostly from North Carolina, Virginia, around near by this place?

W: Everywhere! We had an engineer here from Canada two of em. We had an engineer here from Mississippi. We had brakeman from every state in the union. Don’t you remember Hugh?

Y: Yessir

W: Every state in the union

T: Was this back when you were startin out?

W: Yea yea I had just come along now. You didn’t know nobody’s name when you went out you didn’t know his name. Bill Boe John or Jake Sam something that you didn’t give a damn what it was. You had to get his name when you could. And uh, if he got a nickname the first one he got was, was right after he got here, he carried that as long as he lived. That’s all he ever did get. We had all one civilization, this body of men made up here in spencer, comin from all sections of the country. Some parts of the world and all. We had em from Scotland, England, everywhere. 

T: Can you remember any of the nicknames that you heard a long time ago and how they got their nickname?

W: Well I’ll give you one old boy he was Pistol Happy. He would carry a pistol with him everywhere he went. And he woke up one night layin in the bed and all covered up, seen a man starin in the window he reached under his head and got that 38 and BANG it didn’t do nothin but knock that man off the window seat and it was a big joke. So we got in, and uh, let me see now, hard to understand how many year its been 

Y: Just take ya time

W: Yea! I went up to try and get a job in the train masters office one day upstairs in some old depot and uh, he leaned up against the wall. Janitor comes along and says “what you need” he says “Brown bring up Mr. Brown” is in the bathroom and if he ever see you standin like that don’t bring it up to Mr. Brown. well all he ever got was Regnant Brown and that was his nickname as long as he lived Regnant Brown (?). Oh god how’s bout Hog Burton?

Y: Hog burton

W: Yeah how did he get his name

Y: Well the engineers in them days were called hog heads, engineer and I don’t know if Mr. Burton’s name came from that or not cuz you know he started out as a fireman then wound up as an engineer and was local challenge engineers isn’t he but Hog Burton I don’t know whether that came from after he got promoted to engineer or not. He lived just a block from me. 

W: Well lets just leave it alone

T: Did you have a nickname? Mr. Williams

W: Yeah, yea I’d say so 

T: Tell us about it

Y: I’ll tell ya he was a hard nut out there tougher than gum stump that’s due to the fact he has lived til 89 years old. And he was one of the best conductors in freight and passenger service we’ve ever had out of spencer. I worked with him for 35 some years and he was a real railroader and he would work with the men he didn’t uh low rate ya, he’d be with ya. If you made a mistake he didn’t give you heck for it. He corrected your mistakes and do better the next time this that and the other and he is undoubtedly, now I’m just going with when I worked with him for years, the best railroad man that has ever come out of Spencer, NC. And he looked after young men I came here in 1939 and he was my buddy. He was a railroader but he was tougher than a gum stump. 

W: Well I thank you. (?) old conductor yea. Used to could say I could save someone when a man got in trouble and made him feel better than everybody else saw. One morning Don Zimman we had to pick up a car there. Cut the engine on turned him back to the house and we didn’t throw the derail off! Of all the things that would kill an engine is a derailer and uh he run over the derail he gunned the damn engine over it and it come * impersonates sound* and uh, course it scared him to death. Well I hoped it didn’t scare him too bad but it scared him just enough. I said aw hell don’t worry about goin over the derail from now on be sure and see it before you start out. Or it will be comin out if you don’t look. 

Y: That is what the derail was for. Cars parked in these sidings adjacent to the main line to be sure that car didn’t get loose and run out and follow the main line it would derail it and throw it to the right away from the mainline you could go over em and back over em and it might put ya on the ground but ordinarily it didn’t, but coming out that was the point of it. We referred to them as a derailer and other ones were called jackknifes so it protected the mainlines that’s what it did. 

T: Well lets go back, again, after you had worked your 30 days without pay learnin about the jobs what did you, what did they put you to do?

W: Car would go out the morning of, I believe I went over that I’m not sure, the morning of August the 6th, August the 6th, went to Monroe regular headed freight train 

Y: How long did it take for you to get there that day?

W: We made a good run that day. We made the run in 12 hours. Best run that had been made in many days. Yea we run it in 12 hours. And hadn’t run that job in a long time old Joe Brandons was conductor, 

Y: What did it pay you for that days work? 

W: Two dollars and 50 cents, 5 dollars round trip. 

Y: When I left, when I left bein in the railroad 5 years ago, that same trip would pay me about 85 dollars a day 

T: You might, you have to think a lot of people are gonna hear this probably wont know a lot about the way the railroad’s ran. And so I’d like to get you to describe a little bit about your trip, when you would make a trip, how long, how would you sleep, where would you stay, how long would you stop over things like that. But before you do that


T: Where would you go? How long? How far away? How long would you stay? Just all the details.

W: Well when you’d start a trip from here to Monroe

T: Okay

W: To make a trip from Spencer to Monroe you had to go to the round house to get ya engine, your head brakeman go down to couple the train in the yard then go couple the air. You had to couple your own air when they come in when I come in, couple the air cut the air back into the engine throw your train to stop the leaks. And if there’s any bad on the cars, broken train lines you had to throw em out yourself. And nobody throw em out for ya you get the train together, you start out for Monroe. Single track them days. Maybe you’d get to Linwood and pull in the side track sit there two hours for ole trains to come south. You got them delays like that all the way to Monroe and some time you’d get there in two days sometimes take you three days. A long time most of them that’s about all there is to that. Except lots of times you would have hot boxes and you would have to stop and brass em. You brass your own hot boxes them days and set the cars all nobody come out to brass em for ya. You’d brass em yourself. Brakeman done that. They used to tell a joke, bout how a flag man went to brass a car in the side track he’d load up with a bucket of coal, three or four brasses, jack bowed we called it, jack and the jack level, and go on up from the caboose to the hot box, and somebody said what did the conductor bring? And he brought along a pencil and a book.  it’s a joke isn’t it. Pencil and a book everybody knows what that is, a pencil and a book. 

T: So you would make one of these trips up to Monroe about 2 or 3 days. Would you stay over a day or two before you came back? 

W: Sometimes you would stay there a week! No limit to the time you’d stay there, you stay there they gotta run you back. I had stayed there 6 days twice, 2 times. and one time there what ya call it a fresh maid. I stayed there 6 days, a brakeman had a strike in the bed. Wasn’t nothin comin in to Monroe so we had to stay there and wait til they come. 

T: So you had to uh wait until a train was headed to uh 

W: Wheelin cars come in before you could come out. See the engineer had a wife on the other side of Monroe. The trains come in there and then they come back this way understand.

T: Now what would happen to the engine if it started out here in Spencer? Would it go on to Washington or would it turn

W: No it would turn around in Monroe and went back there was different divisions. 

T: So you would stay with the same engine?

W: Yea yea, sometimes we would send em off. 

T: And you would just wait until they got up enough cars and things til they come

W: Yea yea unless you wanna hop on another train. This railroad was tellin me that more money than any railroad in this part of the country. And um, they say the management has been pretty good. I know they had a lot of hard old boys high up you know. We had a vice president one time in charge of operations 

T: What was his name?

W: Miller, Henry Miller I can tell this I reckon now he made a remark one time that he didn’t give a damn about nobody but his wife and dog and I don’t think he did. Don’t tell that.

T: Were they still laying any track around here when you started. Building new railroads and

W: Oh yea they were buildin double track, only double track they had was from here to Yadkin River and from Pellum to Danville. All they had in this part of the country. Charlotte division was single track all the way to Atlanta. Up here it was all single track except Pellum to Danville and on the Whiteville division it was Archdale to Alexander. 

T: So they were building a lot of track and you saw a lot of people working

W: Yea, yea oh yea lots of people workin. 

T: Those were pretty hard jobs werent they 

W: Indeed, they were. Indeed they were hard work. But them fellas seemed to like it. Every Sunday evening they were doin a lot of resurfacing up on the Whiting division to bring balance under the Shay. had two or three crews working up there every Sunday evening number 32 would have a coal shove on the rear employees lived all the way from Colombia to Charlotte on the Charlotte division. You get on the train you get right in that car and they know where to go. Yea I had, I couldn’t do it well enough than I could’ve done on the railroad. I done fairly well, got by without getting seriously hurt once or twice. 

T: Was it pretty common to have accidents and injuries on the road?

W: Oh yeah, oh hell yea the first ten years I stayed they nearly killed 10 engineers more brakemen than you could count. Oh yeah seen a many a poor devils workin then next second their thrown out across the track whatever they eat that morning just scattered along. Oh yeah, a lot of that. Engineers burn the engine blow em up, killed themselves, turn em over 

T: Why do you think there were so many people killed back then?

W: Well the railroad was not up to date, up to date at that time was rudimentary to today. Didn’t have proper signals or anything. Nothin like that had ever been brought up to make it safe ya know, and I don’t think they were spendin a couple of dollars to make it safe. They just put ya out there on the damn train and tell you to go yonder. 

T: Was it in the back of your mind that you could be killed or hurt? Did you worry about that?

W: No, no I never thought about it you can’t do that. You can’t work and think about gettin killed that don’t go together. No sir death comes to you. On the otherside.

T: But you knew some people who were killed or injured back then. 

W: ohh arms cut off, legs cut off, head cut in two, heads cut off, torn to pieces and everything else. I knew a lot of em. 

T: Did the people on the railroads, did yall ever try to improve the conditions or talk

W: Oh yea we had that goin.

T: Tell me about how that, what that was, what you would do.

W: That was run by, old man Coffin some kind of representative in congress I forget now what Coffin

T: Corbin? 

W: Coffin, C-O-F-F-I-N, Coffin and he introduced a bill known as the Safety Appliance Bill 1893. Started by the congress it started up right then. The Interstate Commerce Commission come in there, all that along by itself and all, and uh, the railroad got to be a safe place to work at after that. Before that not safe. 

T: Did you join one of these brotherhoods of railroading

W: Oh yes, just here long enough

T: How long, when did you join, or how long had you been here when you joined? 

W: 12 months, you had to be here 12 months before you could join a brotherhood those days. 

T: And did you join the brakeman?

W: Yeah! I belonged to the brakeman here too

T: What was that like? How many men would have been in the, would you have regular meetings with the

W: Oh yea, made up in each lodge ya know. 

T: Which lodge did you join? 

W: Ole 29! Here in spencer and uh we finally wound up with 300 members, about 80 when I come in. 

T: Now did they work to improve the safety or conditions of the brakeman on the roads?

W: Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Legislative boys, men would take care of us. Ya see the scene was so rapid those days we couldn’t get no insurance. We had to join on up and make these organizations so we were insured. I got 1350 dollars in insurance in my organization. Lots of men come in good for em too, got killed, wife and children didn’t have nothin, come in good. 

T: That would, would it help if you got injured on the road

W: Oh yeah! If you lost an arm you got 750 dollars, you lost a leg you got a 1000 dollars, you lost your life you got 1350 dollars an all that. 

T: And would the people in the brakeman’s organizations would this be your own money that you would raise in charity would the railroad contribute any to that? 

W: No, no the railroad company didn’t like that. When we first come in together organizing the railroad men would try to come around at night, spy out ya house ya know. Some stranger showed up in town and caused all mess askin who you was and what was the commission and all that kind of stuff, I bound alright

T: They didn’t like uh the idea of you organizing at all. 

W: They never been more useful than old what’s your name down there, Stevens. Stevens hates the brotherhood worse than devil hates holy water. 

T: Stevens? 

W: Yeah 

T: Now which Stevens was that? 

W: Be as much as you know RP Stevens. 

T: JP?

W: JP Stevens

T: Top Textile?

W: Yea yea thats him

T: Fightin the union 

W: Yea he fights the union with every hand, tooth, an nail.

T: And the railroads fought the unions back then too. 

W: Oh yeah. All of em 

T: Well how was it that you all were able to organize and win or keep your group together? 

W: We just kept on fightin. Didn’t stop at nothin. Kept on fightin. You’d beat out a legislation wont allow, legislation representatives didn’t do jack for us down there an the next time and shut him up. There’s a been some pretty good labor leaders in the brotherhood of railroaders training, big men. 

T: Who do you remember? 

W: Oh WG Lee, Presidents and uh Al Whitney. Damn thing the rest of em weren’t written down to save my life. 

T: Did you all work together to get better wages on the railroad. 

W: Better wages, more wages, better wages, and better conditions. We didn’t have much of either one to start with. 

T: Now how would, just how would that work? If you were trying to get better conditions would you all, would you be working, and be like the people of Spencer in your particular uh group here would work for your own selves or would you all work for the good of everybody on the whole system, just how would it work. 

W: There wasn’t one kind of movement until after an 8 hour day all of us was after that. Ya know. Everyone of us machinist, boilermakers, everything else. But whatever effected the trainman only well trainmen were there. What ever effected machinist, boilermakers, like that they had committees, ya know. Each man had a committee. 

T: Would different groups say that the people in spencer would they work for certain things that the people at Monroe would work for different particular local issues or problems?

W: No it didn’t work that way they worked for machinist in Monroe, they had something to do going up they’d bring it out and work for it. And be all the machinists and wives waitin for that, same way when the train runs the Danville division, and the trainmen on the Charlotte division they wanted the same things, after the same, uh, same movement. 

T: Were you pretty active in the union? 

W: I used to be president of the local lodge yea. That wasn’t, that didn’t amount to much. 

T: When was that?

W: 1923, 1922, 25, 26. Three years. 

T: Would you go and meet with the presidents of the other lodges and different parts of the south?

W: Nah I never would do that I was never much of a correspondent had to be a record made of it any how and if you had a meeting you had a record. 

T: Did you remember any strikes that yall had? 

W: Oh yea, 

T: Where there 

W: I remember the first strike we ever had in March St. Patrick’s day, 1913. We had a unani- we were pullin the railroads out in them days we started in a New England Hopper and pulled em out an come on down. But we didn’t get but one of em out. We got the NY, NH, and H out and the rest of em threw up they’re hands and surrendered. Surrendered to us. 

T: So the ones down here in the south never did get out?

W: No they didn’t have to come out. Had orders not to come out. 

T: So you all won without,

W: without havin to go back. Them boys on the NY, NH and H were only, they struck a 101 percent, it was the major heart slinger up there when he come out. 

T: What did they win on that strike? Do you remember?

W: Well I couldn’t tell ya exactly what they did win. 

T: What would it have been about mostly back in those days?

W: We come up from, we come up from, lets see, I wouldn’t know how to say that either, we come up about, speak about day, 10 hours, we come up about, oh about a day, good raise, good raise, yea here to Monroe we got 2 ½ straight trip them days we got up to 296 quite a good raise 

T: That was right around the time of this strike?

W: Yeah

T: Mhmm, would you, how much would you be paid during the day if you were, you were waiting to go back on a trip if you were

W: Not a damn cent I stayed in Monroe 6 days twice never got a damn nickel for it. 

T: I bet, I guess you all complained about that to the uh

W: Oh yea we raised hell about that

T: Now who would you deal with if you had a complaint about that where would you take it?

W: Vice president of operation, the vice president, general manager in those days, vice president of operations now. 

T: And who was the one that you remember dealin with? 

W: Old man E.H. Coppman he was vice president of operations, vice president general manager. Later on Henry Miller.

T: Coburn was the first one? Co- what’s his name? The first one you mentioned? The first vice president?

W: Coppman

T: Co- Coppman

W: Coppman C-O-P-P-MAN

T: C-O- okay

W: Yeah

T: Now was it ever your job as president of the local to go in and talk to one of the 

W: No, the committee always did that, se we had a general committee made up of all these 23 sub committees, the general committee and then it went on up to the vice president in charge of the territory. The brotherhood had its president, vice president, in charge of we’ll say Charlotte division to Danville division, and maybe the Asheville division. Vice president in charge of that, he’d handle that. Damn good at it too. I remember them old boys mighty well. 

T: Can you remember any times in which people here on the southern division went on a strike? 

W: Oh you mean the machinists an them shop crowd? Yeah

T: Well just anyone

W: Yea September the 22nd 1922. All shop crowd went on strike stayed out on the strike for about three or four months. I reckon how long they stayed out. They had to go back to work though the same old scale. But it helped them a whole lot at that. They, uh, come to find out that they would strike had cost a hell of a lot to run the railroad out and in on it ya know. The lines coming and the next contractor just like that you know. It was like that ever since. Up and up. 

T: These were the men that were the machinist and worked in the shop?

W: Machinist, boilermakers, boilermaker’s helpers, blacksmiths, Blacksmith’s helpers, electricians, officeman, any shop grabber would. 

T: And what did you the brakeman and conductors and everybody else do while that was goin on? Would you support them in anyway?

W: Yea we’d give em money, we couldn’t uh, now a days you can’t cross a picket line, you’d stop at that picket line now. But not so in them days, you went on out to you’d give em the money, helped em out all you could. My grocery bill been more them three months than my own grocery bill cause I helped em out and so did all the rest of the men. Them boys didn’t suffer much. 

T: So all the different railroad unions really looked out for each other and helped each other out? 

W: Oh yeah we did that, that’s procure less and less today, yea they, now the brakemen when they decided to do away with the firemen on the railroad, the brakemen loaned, BOIT loan, BOLF, over a million dollars. I don’t know why it is but it claims the brakemen got more money than any other organization in the country. Any, any one railroad. More than the fireman, conductor, anybody makes then.

T: Now you started earlier started working as a fireman and then you learned, they taught you about braking. 

W: Yeah

T: And then you became a conductor?

W: Mmhmm

T: And then how long did you keep, how long were you a conductor? Or can you remember, how long first of all how many years did you work as a brakeman? 

W: 12 years and 20 days

T: And you did that, that was the first job you had with the southern 

W: Yeah, 12 years and 20 days, had my time, only ever moved me to be a conductor and uh, gave you an old adage on that. One time there was a lady, a black one, on the train she asked me, “Are you a conductor?” I said, “yes, I’m makin nothin.” “why don’t you do somethin about it?” “Lord I didn’t tell you I was the conductor, I said I was a conductor. I’m a conductor without a train! That man up yonder has a train and me too. Had him in the same boat.” 

T: how was it that you, uh, became a conductor?

W: By seniority. Promote ya, promote ya in your turn ya know if ya were qualified. You don’t qualify, you don’t go. Otherwise I’d say qualifications. 

T: So it took about 12 years to get the seniority to become a conductor?

W: No, it didn’t take that much, there was so many men ahead of me ya see. This rail- this division was always bad about hiring men that they didn’t need. The day I come here they run off of 25 men. I said, “By god I’ll be a conductor in a little while. If I keep this up.” But lord, them old boys were coming out of the woods coming back in. Been out on the farm ya know, for years, hired long ago than me. They pretty much come back, they’d hurt ya too. Yea they hurt ya. 

T:  In other words they had some time in and they could come back. 

W: Oh yeah, a single man never hired and that keeps it up, ya see, keep his leave of absence up, just keep leave of absence up, and they’ll send ya out every night.

T: So they could go, would they go sometimes work a crop and then come back?

W: Oh hell yea, work three or four crops. Be gone ten years and come back. Oh yea. Train master one of our old trainmasters dropped into the caboose in the morning unexpected flagman and uh he says, “hey Reg I smell liquor.” he says, “that’s nothing I can taste it.” How’s that? 

T: That was a good story. 

W: *laughs* pretty good wasn’t it. “I can taste it” ten years it was leave of absence and so on. 

T: So you were, it was part of your wantin to move up as much as you could but it took a while to become a conductor 

W: Oh yea yea you had to come in when your time you know, couldn’t run around nobody. Couldnt run around nobody. 

T: Now how did people get to be engineers?

W: They wouldve started out firing thats the way I started it ya know at old Seaboard doin switchin and everything.

T: And how long would you have to work as a fireman before you got to be engineer? 

W: Three years was the maximum I think. I mean the minimum. Three years. And uh, course some got by a little shorter according to how bad they needed men. They used to say how old hard old hard tale about the fireman you know which it was hard too. Fireman was all right if you had a strong back and weak mind, whole lot of it worked that way. 

Hugh Young (November 7, 1914 – January 12, 1995)

Brakeman and Conductor

Interviewed by Dan Ellison October 17, 1981

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Dan Ellison: Why don’t you just say your name? Talk how… 

Hugh Young: Right, right, you’re sittin’ here talking to Hugh Young in Spencer with my dog here.  We’re havin’ a good time right now. How did that sound?

E: Well let’s see, I guess let’s start off with askin’ you a couple of those more direct questions just so that we get your name on the tape here.  Why don’t you say what your full name is and give me a date of birth? 

Y: I’m Hugh Ashe Young, I was born in Spencer North Carolina November the 7th 1914. Been here all my life.

E: So you were born in Spencer?

Y: Born in Spencer, November the 7th. 

E: November the 7th. 

Y: 1914, I’m 67 years old this comin’ November. 

E: Well. Happy Birthday, how many years of school did you have? 

Y: 11 

E: 11, okay 

Y: At the time, that’s all the school had. They didn’t have 12 grades, they had 11. After I finished school, I went to Spencer Watch School where they did watch making.  That was above my high school education so that’s schooling, too. 

E: Well, what did your parents do? 

Y: My father was a railroad man, had been all his life. He was a conductor on the railroad.  Like father, like son, I suppose.   Not so long after, I went into the railroad. But before I went into the railroad, I stayed watchmakin’ after schoolin’ and worked that for a while.  

E: Do you remember the name of the school? 

Y: Spencer Watch School is a state sponsored school. I tell people I’m a graduate of NC State. That is a NC State School of Horology, the art of time keeping *Laughs* 

E: Is that school still around? 

Y: No, that, uh, school was sponsored by the State and after that, all that was right after the depression, I worked at dairies, delivered milk, and then I went to the YMCA, the railroad YMCA, as a short order cook for a year. Then went back to the North Carolina Finishing Company and worked in a laboratory until 1939 as an organic chemist. 

E: And you were about 24 then? Would that be. I guess. uh 

Y: Well, yeah, roughly, then I went back to the railroad in 39, stayed there until I retired in 75. 

E: Just sorta backing up a little bit, uh, what was your father’s name? 

Y: Hugh, Hugh Lindsay Young. And he was born on April 2nd, 1881 in Davidson County. And all he ever did was railroadin’. 

E: What’s, so you started to work with the railroad in 1939? 

Y: July of 1939

E: What was your first job for them, where did you start? 

Y: Brakeman, you start off on the railroad as a brakeman. 

E: But you knew you wanted to be a conductor.

Y: Yeah, you worked up from a brakeman, flagman, and baggage master all those might be the same. A brakeman worked on the front end of a freight train and a flagman worked on the rear end of a freight train, rode the caboose and a flagman on a passenger train was on the rear end, came in on a passenger train and was called a baggage master. And, uh, you worked up from there to a conductor. On the same token, on the engine you went in as a fireman and you worked up to an engineer. So, you had your train crew and your engine crew. 

E: What specifically did the job entail when you first started off? Before you start to answer that, maybe you could give me a typical day, what would you start off doing?

Y: Well, a brakeman would start off here in Spencer, so we’d go to what you call the roundhouse and get our engine and the engineer fireman and brakeman would get on at the roundhouse, we’d take it from the roundhouse round to the yard. And it was up to me to lead it, take it on around there, throw the switches and get it to the yard and back it up into the yard and couple up to the train. And after I moved up here, it was up to me to set off cars at their respective places, between here and Monroe, Virginia, wherever we were goin’. And to pick up cars, along set off and pick up cars on the road. And throw all the switches so all that work could be done. 

E: Was that a dangerous job?

Y: Well, I don’t know whether you call it dangerous or not. I didn’t think any more dangerous than any other job is dangerous, the most anything. You get worked in goods and just a job, regular routine stuff every day. Same thing day in and day out, the same scene every day.

E: Pretty much the same number of cars?

Y: Yeah, until the diesels got  in the stretched out but it’s still got the same number of cars but more of them.

E: What kind of train did you just start off working?

Y: Steam engines and we never did handle 100 cars and the train on the steam engine and couldn’t, can’t pull that tonnage wise. Never will forget one that came into Greensburg coming, coming south and the man that had it set off had to come pick up then and worked out that I was gonna leave Greensboro with 99 cars. And I told my fireman “how about adding one more car. That way we make it 100.” and since then the biggest I’ve pulled on an engine was 285 one day. But he couldn’t find that other car.

E: Really? But you never did pull 100 with a steam locomotive? 

Y: You betcha, I sure did.

E: How many other brakemen were  working at the same time there? Just one brakeman for

Y: You had one brakeman and this, Im doin all my talkin’ about freight trains now, I did most of my work on freight trains. Now you had one brakeman on the head end and you had a flagman and a conductor that rode the cab, and we’d leave here and go to Greensboro somewhere to do the work, they would always come to the head end and help you do the work. And would let it pull by, engineer would pull by and pick them up on the rear down to Danville or wherever. To the next corner of work. 

E: Exactly what kind of work would you have to do in order to pick up the trains, instead set ‘em off? 

Y: Well now, we leave here we’d leave Spencer and the conductor always gave us a lineup of what we had and everything was built. The train was built in station order because I had a lot of bad places in between Lexington, Thomasville, High Point, Greensboro but most known as freight trains. First stop would be Greensboro for Danville, Virginia Alvis to Virginia, Lynchburg, Virginia. That’s the way the trains would be built. Then you had to do stuff on the way up to Monroe, Virginia on the rear. So, he would give us what you call a switch list. Line up of our train. You’d have 5 cars goin’ to Greensboro, the brakeman he’d drop off over and cut off 5 cars. Hit em back in the yard and set em off and he’d have a track to pick up in. 

E: Now if you cut off the cars, what would you have to do?

Y: Well, the first thing you’d have to do is turn your ankle cuffs to down(?) close the air and then lift your leaver and uncouple the car, sign the engineer ahead to go ahead and pull over the switch, throw the switch and then sign ‘em back into the yard or wherever you were settin’ off at but into the track you were settin’ off in. If you got any yard, you had a whole lot of track you had to ease on back looking for switches that wasn’t right, come on back, maybe the yard had 10 or 12 tracks in it and you were told to set off number 5 track and you are liable to have every switch you got wrong ‘til you get to number 5 or whatever. 

E: If you had a switch wrong, what would that mean?

Y: You would have to sign the engineer down, get off and go throw that switch, go onto the next one’ til you find the track you was goin’ to and line yourself into, the brakeman would line up the switches 

E: Did it take some muscle to throw the switches?

Y: Some of ‘em did, yes if they were, around most of this yard, we had what you call a switch tender and they would keep’ em cleaned out, keep the dirt and stuff, kept em up, oil up so they were pretty easy to throw. So I have run across some that took man power after you got the switch lever up, you’d have to stand up on it to get it to push to the other side before it would latch. And I have seen ‘em hard enough it’d take two of ya to throw it. Just speaking of strength sometimes. 

E: I don’t think people think of brakemen as needing muscles, just to focus on the common misconception of them. 

Y: Well, if it came down to me, we didn’t need muscles. I didn’t weigh much over 100 pounds when I first went on the railroad. 

E: What would happen if you messed up and didn’t throw the switch properly? Did that ever happen? 

Y: Oh that happened, you just headed in the wrong track if you didn’t throw the switch right. And after you found your mistake, you would sign the engineer down, sign ‘em ahead, pull up on the switch and then head ‘em in the right track. And sometimes if you hadn’t thrown the switch right headin’ the wrong wa,y you were liable to what we call split switch then you couldn’t go up the switch. 

E: They would derail?

Y: It has been done, yes, yes, I have done that. 

E: Not trying to put you on the stand here.

Y: No, uh, one must always be sure if they split a switch, they should be sure to never back up then. Because you done tore a switch up and after you split it, it’s like see you tore it up then you are gonna have trouble. You’re gonna get the cars on the ground. There may not be any rail for them to go on. One wheel go one way, one set of trucks, one set of trucks go this way the other way. You’d get the cars on the ground, once you split a switch. 

E: How would the crew get the train off the ground, once it got on?

Y: Well, it was according to how bad it was. We had what we called rerailers. And then you had to get your rerailers off the engine and that’s when your man power came in. and they weighed, I have no idea, maybe about 80 pounds or more. You’d put those down beside the rail right underneath the wheel and pull or back your train up to it. Then run it up the rerailer when you were rerailing the car. You’d run up on that. And then throw it right up on the rail. It’s called a rerailer. And by the same token we had a derailer. The derailers in these tracks was to keep anything from rolling out of the yard into a main line and affecting the movements of the trains on the mainline. These derailers, they would hit them and throw your cars always away from the mainline switch. So, you had derailers and rerailers. 

E: Are those things still in use? Does that stuff still go on today? 

Y: Yessir, they are still used today

E: What about throwing switches, is it done differently?

Y: Well, a yard switches around most of these yards are still manual but we have an electrical yard, a hump yards and things there, that are electrically thrown, and still there are some manual switches in those too.  

E: Now what kind of..

E: Those switches are mainly on the road now. I don’t know we have the CTC, centralized train control, is all thrown out of one place, centralized in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’m referring to just our divisions.

E: All done by computers, more or less? 

Y: It’s a computer railroad today. It sure is.

E: It’s different from where you started off.

Y: Yessir, and I had quite a bit of it before I retired. 

E: Now on your job as brakeman, what sort of contact with other people did you have?

Y: Now what are you referring to?

E: What you’ve described so far, it sounds almost as if you aren’t communicating to anyone except signaling to the conductor. Is that?

Y: Well now, when you are talking about communication to other folks, always before we left our home terminal, we always had to communicate with our yard master, the yard master had to communicate with the dispatcher, and make a watch comparison get the correct time.   Same token, he had to make a watch comparison with the engineer with the remainder of his crew, deliver these orders to ‘em, see that he read ‘em, everybody on the crew read the orders and understood ‘em, then we’d go to our other towns where we would have to do our work.  We’d have to talk with the yard master and he would always tell us what to do so actually you were communicating with somebody at every place, not just your crew, your 5 men. You had a 5 men crew in them days. Engineer, fireman, brakeman on the head end, and the flag man on the rear. But when, you say went to Greensboro, you had to contact the yard master there and see what you’d tell him “ I got 10 cars for ya” and he would tell you where to put them. Set off on track so and so and pick up in track so and so. So, you were communicating with someone all the time, at all these places, then course after the radio was, we got radio communication, you was communicating with someone ‘bout all the time. The chief dispatchers and different ones, other trains on the railroad meetin’ them on line on the road, talkin’ back and forth to ‘em. 

E: Did y’all get breaks during the day? 

Y: Uh, no, not on the, we would say in the transportation department, we didn’t have breaks. Now the yard crews that worked shift works to 8 hour shifts, they had a 20 minute meal time and tha’ts all the breaks they got. But we didn’t have any breaks at all. On the transportation, on the road. On our department. 

E: You just worked

Y: That’s right, until we got our work done, that’s right’ til we got to the other end of the road. Way back before CPC came here, we would run a lot of passenger trains which is class first class trains and we had first class freight trains and the others that we refer to as second class.  The slop freight, we had to give weight to them and when one of ‘em come through, we had to get on a pass track and let ‘em by. And that was the brakeman’s job. The head engine, the train engine into a pass track after you got in there, it was up to the flagman to switch behind ‘em. Then the brakeman would head him out but most of our switches on headin’ out switches were what were called spring switches. And you’d have to throw the switch, wait three minutes, sign the engineer ahead and when he got close to the switch, I would throw the switch back over and close it back up. And then the flagman, there was a spring switch that automatically closed itself. Then the flagman didn’t have to get off and close that one back up like when they first went in. 

E: You said you had to wait three minutes?

Y: Well we had to wait three minutes to make sure we had the signal board, you see. And that was when we threw that switch, threw the mainline switch, that threw a red board in our rear. Back behind us just in case another train was coming and would get by that board, do you  follow what I’m sayin’, that board back here, he might have gotten by that board but that would have given us three minutes to get by where we were heading out. Well we’d throw that switch and come right on ou., He’d already been by that board, on a green board, and come on down there and run into us, you see. So that’s why we were waiting three minutes to give that man a chance to show up if there was anybody back there. 

E: What did you use to figure the three minutes?

Y: There everybody had a railroad, standard railroad watch. And, uh, it had to be the standard watch, it had to be inspected once a year, and you had to have a watch comparison with like I said a while ago, they compared watches with the dispatcher every trip, and on the same token he came to the front end and compared watches with the engineer, and the brakeman, and the fireman; to see that everyone had the right time. 

I; So you all synchronized..

Y: Synchronize our watches. Yessir

E: And when you say three minutes, you actually did it for three minutes

Y: Yes 

E: Why not 2 or four and a half, right on 

Y: Well, we did sometime, you didn’t, a lot of hell, 

E: What if there was no other train? 

Y: If you knew there wasn’t any other train coming and if you were workin’ with the regular crew, if you had a conductor and a flagman on the rear, and I knew what my men were gonna do, my conductor and flagman were gonna do. And if I had an engineer that had never take shit talking’ bout it and put it up like a fanatic,(?) overruled sometimes, I wouldn’t even have to get off. sometimes its rainin’, you know, done got wet once comin’ in here, well the conductor and flagman would be sittin’ back there, standin’ out on the rear of the cab.  If they heard anybody coming, they’d have a few ways to stop ‘em.  Anyways, when this train would be in there for gettin’ by, we’d follow ‘em right on out of there. ‘Cause you had a man back yonder on the other end of that train standin’ there flaggin for ya, but that was against the rules though. 

E: But it happened anyways.

Y: Yes 

E: There were rules meant to be broken

Y: The rules were made to be broken and by the same token, they would never put you up on the carpet for anything they say that rule book was meant to fire you by too, and we had to go to a rules class that was standard. The Interstate Commerce Commission made us go to a rules class and a test once a year, you had to do that, if you  missed it and your rules class at your home terminal once the year for three days, and that gave everybody a chance to go, and if you didn’t go then, you  had to go to Greensboro and might have  to stand a test by yourself one day. We would have a rules class and maybe 20 or 30 would be there at a time and you wouldn’t have to answer so many questions. 

E: Was that something you had to study for? 

Y: Yessir, yessir

E: Did you ever have people flunk that test?

Y: Oh  yeah, it was some flunk but they were pretty lenient  with you though. Maybe they wouldn’t even ask, some people weren’t even asked a question. You would have 2 or 3 companies in place for the conductors’ rules and you had 40 in the class and you couldn’t ask everybody in the clas,s in fact it was mostly a review. He’d start there and he would hit the high spots, what they thought was the most important rules. But every once in a while he would ask John Doe what is your interpretation of rule so and so, this, that, and the other, I think he was just doin’ it to see if you were paying attention or if you were asleep. 

I; What were the main rules that they would use?

Y: Conductors put as the most important rule of all was safety, you put yourself first, your fella men,  and the company next but safety was the main central rule. 

E: Was the railroad pretty good at keeping conditions safe for the people that worked there? 

Y: Well uh, I’d say yeah but at times, but I believe it’s like all other industries, you’ve got dislikes, and it was our job to call attention to it. You’d always, we were always having safety committees. And they were always out inspecting if you had anything, any gripes, you’d tell them and they would tell the right people about it and they’d go out and fix it or whatever. 

E: So, something like the union had? 

Y: That’s, yeah, and it was also for your own benefit too! As well as the company, you  take some places with a lot of brush, weeds where you couldn’t get around well,  I’d have to wait until there were a lot of weeds around to switch or something especially during rainy weather, wet weed was something, they’d be sneaky places. You know, the weeds around you know, and if a switch was hard to throw it was quite often that we had to say something about it, and they appreciated it.  They wanted you to do it because the track supervisor couldn’t be everywhere everyday, see, and it was to their advantage to call this stuff to their attention to these things and go remedy it, you see. 

E: So they were always good about it.

Y: Yessir, at least I thought so. 

E: That’s the impression that most the people I’ve talked to about this.

Y: Well I had 37 years of railroadin’ and I, uh, enjoyed every bit of it and personally, I think I got along fine with the company, and I liked workin’ for em. I had a good job and I couldn’t have done any better with a high school education. It was good pay and so why not do a good job? And I tried to do a good job. If I ever did anything, then they were justifiable in the sentence ya for it, you see. 

E: Do they, um, have any sort of reward system for the more a person was doing a good job?

Y: They did, years ago, when I first came here. I got a letter or two right now with suit pennants where I had, they used a what you call a demerit system, if you uh do anything they would give you demerits for it. But by the same token, though later on, if you did anything they thought wise, good, they thought it was good on your part or something that you did, they’d take off those demerits. And I’ve got a letter or two of where congratulations and things right now and I’ve kept those amongst others, but it’s not that way today though.  I tell you today, it’s rough, it was before I left, I had a fellow that was a boiler maker and before he retired, I was never in the service but I heard people talking about his 90 day wonders, you heard of the 90 day wonders, where these men come out of officers’ training school, you know, and go into service and tell these fellas what to do and, with all due respect, they disrespected book learnin’ and actual experience is the best teacher, and my father in law brought up through manual labor that he knew what he was doing, and he was an awful good fellow, but he would come up every once in a while and be upset about a college lookin’ over my shoulder’ tellin’ me what to do. Now he came up the hard way and he knew what to do and they were trying to tell him through the book learning, which I can see is alright, but they pushed it sometimes. And it got Ihad a fellow one day, the secretary of the YMCA here, asked me one Sunday at church wonderin’ what was wrong with the morals of the men. He said, “when I first came here years ago, morale was good, but it’s broke down now, why?” I said “the men were spyin’ on ya.” It wasn’t nothin’ in my younger years on the railroad, wee hours of the night 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, you’d be switchin’ over in one of these wooded places somewhere, and some official would show up 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.  I thought I’d be at home asleep, ‘cause we were back at Linwood.  We had to, but spying on em. I’d gone down through Sycamore, Virginia one night and some fella just did as a joke.  His friend of mine was a train master here, come in on the radio he said “Hugh Young, Hugh Young, you awake?” He knew damn good and well I wasn’t awake but he woke me up when he spoke to me. ‘Cause I said “Yessir,”

E: Y’all got to sleep on the job there. Sounds like. 

Y: No sir, they did, uh, the worst time in the world, just the dawn, just the sun, been up all night been goin up white oak mountain of some sort firin in the sun since just the break of day just be at home in Monroe, in my bed.  I could just fall off to sleep, and the first thing you know you dozed off, all these grags (?),  like going up White Oak Mountain or somewhere, from being up say 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, it was awful easy for you to nod off. I was flaggin’ for a fellow one night, back when we had those cupola cabs, say you used to have to go and throw some water on your face if you were nodding too much, right the conductor told me that, 

E: What’s a cupola?

Y: The cupola was on top of the cab, you seen them old cabs, they had a cupola on it but later on the new cabs, the bay window and look out the side of the train, you see you understand that, 

E: Yeah, I gotcha

Y: And back them days when they had the regular cabs too, the conductors and that was class the union allowed ‘em that, that was class, as their home away from home, a lot of the conductors and flagmans stayed on the cab after they got that away from home terminal at the end of the road. They had their beds on a row, fold up rollaway beds, on there. And they’d cook and eat on the cab and uh,

E: Brakeman too or just the?

Y: A lot of times the brakeman could sit on there with ‘em, I know I went with ‘em as flagman for one year one time and they slept on the cab over there in Monroe but I had a room myself over there but I ate with them all the time and, uh, I know a lot of time we would head in a passin’ track to let a train by many a night, evening, they’d say “come inside” at the top of White Oak, on top of White Oak Mountain, now everybody’s heard of White Oak Mountain due to the wreck of old 97, and we couldn’t go down into Danville ahead of a passenger train to do our work so we would go into the pass track at White Oak and let this train go by and then go down to Danville behind ‘em to do the work. And when I opened up the switch to head ‘em in, I would stay at the switch.  Now that’s back in steam engine days, when the trains were short, and the flagman and the conductor already had supper cooked for us, and I’d stay back there and eat supper and go back to the head end at Danville and do our work, we wouldn’t have 40, 50 cars.  It wouldn’t take you long to walk them, you see, so and them two fellas slap meat on the cab and kept good food on there, cooked a pot of beans 

E: Where would the conductor’s cab usually be? Would it be at the front or?

Y: Hmm

E:[ Asks same question] 

Y: No the cab, the caboose, was always the rear of the train, 

E: The caboose is.

Y: Yeah, was always the rear of the train

E: That’s what I thought, why was it painted red?

Y: Well I don’t know why red but if you will look today at the box cars and trains, they are all different colors, looks like the rainbow going down the road but years ago when i came on the railroad, boxcars and everything was the same color red, dark red, but now they’ve got every color of the rainbow, each one has their own different colors now. And a lot of private owned cars, they got their own colors you see, but I reckon everything started off red.  That was a good question I haven’t thought about that, everything was red even when I came in 39. 

E: I always hear about the little red caboose. 

Y: The little red caboose, that’s right 

E: Was it typically the same people you worked with every day? 

Y: Yeah, they’d have your regular crews and the engineer, he had his regular fireman and the conductor had his two regular brakeman, flagman and, and the brakeman. Same people on the passenger train. The engineer and the fireman were together, the conductor and the brakeman and the baggage master and the flagman on the passenger trains were always together.

E: You might get your conductor, brakeman, and flagman crew but might get a different engineer. 

Y: We did, we did get a different engine crew every time. ‘Cause we had more train crews than they did engine crews so we got a different engine crew every time. But our train crew was the same. It made for better teamwork, we knew what to expect out of the other one you see. Like what I was referring to while ago, when we would come out of a pass. The conductor, flagman would be protecting me, you see. See if the engineer would go on because he knew we would be flaggin’ the rear for us. And I knew where they were gonna be at all times and they knew where I was gonna be at all times. And I had a conductor to tell me or give me the switch list, of the work that had to be done, and this one conductor I stayed with for ‘bout a year says” you do your work as you see fit or do it as I tell you to do as you see fit, don’t let no engineer tell you different. If he wants to tell you different from what I’ve told you to do or what I see fit to do, let that protect your time, you sit down on the rail and you wait ‘til I get there and I’ll see why it hadn’t been done. Now it’s not just between us, it wasn’t much harmony between the engine crew and the train crew.

E: Why do you think that was?

Y: Wel,l uh, a brakeman was class in a way, was the lowest man on the totem pole. The engineer was the highest paid man on the crew. The engineer, conductor were equally responsible for the safe movement of the workings of the train. In the absence of the conductor, he kinda had in charge of me. And when the conductor got there, I had to do what he said to do you see. And it was always, let’s just put it blunt, the engineer thought he was smarter than everybody else and that’s just my opinion of being a brakeman and a conductor. I never been, I’ll never forget one night, I run a train quite a bit before I retired, I got a regular conductor’s job, actually kinda ahead of my time, because 4, 5 men didn’t want the particular job that I went on at that time, so I was the conductor a little bit, regular conductor 4 or 5 of them older than me, but we went by seniority.  I’ll never will forget leaving Monroe one night, this boy, a good friend of mine, he was one of these smart fellas, he wanted to take charge. Like I said the engineers always want to take charge, and I got my instructions and like I said while ago  he gets his orders, he gets his instructions, telegraph office sent to the telegraph office to the dispatcher in Greensboro. Well we had our orders, had two or three sheets of paper telling you what to do down the road, like we’d leave Monroe to tell you maybe what you’d have to do in Lynchburg. They’d tell you to leave there so you could do so and so to Alabaster, Virginia. Leave there light enough so you can do so and so. And they would tell you where the tracks would be track so and so to Alabaster. But I never will forget this night. This engineer, well now do so and so and started mapping out my work for me.  I had the two brakemen working for me, you see, it was up to us to do the work. I just reached over and patted him on the butt. I says you just sit there and work that throttle and you watch our lantern, we’ll do the work, you just follow us. He didn’t speak to me no more from there on ‘til we got to Spencer. But I was, my daddy one time made the remark, I got a brother in law at that time, well it wasn’t at that time, anyways was a school teacher and he was visiting the house one time and my daddy  said “Charles you  know the difference between a conductor and a school teacher?” he says “No” he says, “a train conductor minds a train and a  school teacher trains the mind.” So, they were equally responsible, the engineer and conductor, but if anything ever happen, have troubles or anything, delay another train, it was the conductor that had to do all the corresponding. Had more reports and writing to do, then why didn’t so and so, we had a joke on the railroad a long time ago, and these reports you would turn into these telegraph offices and they needed to be short and to the point because they sent em over the wire, telegraph keys and such and such. And this fellow named Hannigan, course you might have heard this joke, the superintendent told ‘em one day, he said “Now listen you need to write out a report and then lock a letter,” he says “ now you make that thing short and to the point.” And, uh, it wasn’t long after they had some trouble he sent in the report off again, on again, off again Hannigan.  That was his report; it was short and to the point.

E: That was short and to the point though, right

Y: It sure was 

E: Did y’all ever play any jokes on the engineer or try to trick em at all a kind of practical joke kinda thing? 

Y: Yes, there was, now you you’d get on with the switcher, I did a lot of the local freight works. Switcher work. On a switcher outta here, what we called a Luxon switcher, ran out of here as conductor, on that for quite a while before I went on the flue run. From here to Lexington, we worked two or three places between here and Lexington,  and then all the furniture factories in Lexington came back in that evening, go back the next day, but you see we would get off and go for lunch  and you could take a washer, oh uh, let’s say the size of a quarter, and this was in the steam engine day, and put a washer under each one of the drive wheels on that engine on each side of it and put it right up underneath the wheel, just as far as you could get with it and he couldn’t move that engine. Now that unless you’ve seen it done, you’d think that would be impossible, but just that one little washer under each of those drive wheels and maybe it might be 3  or 4, I don’t know how many drive wheels, ‘cause on the size of the engine, you know ‘cause on that engine right here and right there, on each one of ‘em, and he couldn’t move that engine, and that would make him think for a while but that would be one of the little tricks you would pull on em. 

E: Did he ever try to play any back on conductors or brakeman or anything like y’alls? 

Y: Well, there wasn’t too much you could do. I’d think I don’t know of any. I can tell you one thing, it wasn’t exactly a joke but we used to get out ya own work train, and them days, like I said, they had the regular cabs in ‘em and you would cook and eat on the cabs, and all shut on down for lunch and the, um, flagman or somebody on there would cook a meal for dinner that day, and everybody would come back to eat.  Course everybody was supposed to team up and help with it, you know wash dishes, pay their part.  In them days, you could quarter something like that maybe, but the engineer when he got through eating, he would always get out of washing dishes, “ Well, I got to go back to the engine, I gotta oil the rounds,” and the fireman always had an excuse, he had to go back to the engine to work on his fire. Clean his fire box, shake the grates up.  See now ’’ts something, always got out of washing dishes, so you might say they did play some jokes on us.  They always had something like that to be done so they wouldn’t have to wash dishes after dinner. 

E: That was pretty smart, 

Y: That was on these work trains and such as that. 

E: So about how long did you work as a brakeman before getting your job as a conductor? 

Y: I worked there 39, I got promoted in 43, and I worked off and on, extra and such emergency work, as a conductor from then on until, oh, how long, ‘til about 55, and worked all kind of jobs from then on until about 59. Then I got me a regular job, and then at the one here, I got me a regular flue job from here to Monroe, Virginia. 

E: Always basically freight trains

Y: It was, yeah

E: Was there a different group of people that worked on passenger trains? 

Y: Well now, you could use your seniority, now we worked on a seniority base.  Now if you got your seniority, they gave it to you, you could work on a passenger train if you were qualified, you had to be qualified for it, and, uh, not stand any particular rule classes but they did have particular rules for the passenger men, and then you had to wear very specific uniforms and things, especially conductor, flagman, and we were running from Salisbury to Washington D.C and you had to go to Washington terminal and once the engine was at the Washington terminal, rule examination just like we had to do a rule examination when we got home, we’d head home 

E: And that would be for the passenger

Y: Yeah, now a freight train just ran to Monroe, Virginia but a passenger train ran all the way from Salisbury to Washington, so

E: Did y’all, as freight train conductor, did y’all have special uniforms that you wore? 

Y: Mo, no, 

E: You just wear

Y: Anything, that’s one thing I always liked ‘cause freight work better than I did passenger work because I, uh, the main thing I did quite a bit of passenger work myself several years ago, but I didn’t like dealing with the public.  The public was hard to deal with. And if you get a train load of people, it’s hard to please. And in the wintertime, some of ‘em might be too hot or too cold or something you know. They would ask you some ridiculous question and expect you to tell ‘em here, what time they were gonna get in California and all that. Public’s just weird, I’d like to say that. I remember one time, before I got on the railroad, I knew what public work was, and I could go as I please, you weren’t supposed to smoke on the train.  If you did, you had to go in the toilet to smoke on the train and freight they still wanted you to be clean, decent even on the freight train but you could go dress as you please and even smoke or chew or whatever you wanted to. Oh lord, you couldn’t drink no liquor though, they had a rule in there about that. Rule G, you couldn’t have alcoholic beverages no matter what. Rule G was a dismissible offense. Course later on, on top on the alcohol they added narcotics drugs to that, then of course alcoholic beverages, back then they didn’t know all the difference.

E: It was probably the same problems as it is now.

Y: That’s right, 

E: So a conductor on a passenger train would be the person to answer all of those questions that the public had as well as 

Y: Well yeah, there was so much trouble to deal with.  You’d have drunks and fights and during the war, it was WWII, it was something to behold, I’ll tell you, and you couldn’t scare ‘em with a stick on there too. People sleepin’ in the aisles, sleepin’ in the vestibules, and those were the only places trains were still loading. Pitiful, women would be with their babies on trains going cross country to a camp to see their husbands or something that was in service. He’d be layin’ down there in the aisle, wrapped up in a blanket, asleep. Or something. Mamma’s standing up, it was rough 

E: Were you ever conductor on any of those trains? 

Y: No, I never was.  The only time I was ever conductor and didn’t have to do anything, then as a conductor, I was mostly a pilot. We had to detour a lot of trains and you had to have a crew on there on to detour ‘em. We detoured over there, we detoured the trainman from that particular railroad, would be in charge of the train. But I still had to, we still had our regular conductors and things but we didn’t do no work or nothing. So I done that quite a bit. Back then when we had floods but I didn’t wear no uniform or nothing. 

E: What did y’all do in your leisure time? Did you take a lunch break?

Y:  Well I couldn’t tell ya, we didn’t have no lunch break on the railroad, no, you, uh, I was talking about going up White Oak Mountain.  There was always an eatin’ place for going on these slow drags, going up these mountains, that was a good time to eat. During the wintertime, of course, we had stoves on there and we would have our lunches.  We would put our sandwiches on the stove and heat ‘em up, you know, and a lot of times, if you had your regular cabs, you had your coffee pot on there, and eat ya lunch, ya know, always eating up a mountain on a slow drag. Regularly you would eat going out of Danville. Well  Danville Virginia was down in a hole, you were coming out of Danville either way, north or south. You was going up a mountain, a hill, so it was a slow drag and it was always an eating plain. Regardless of what day or time it was, you eat comin’ or goin’ out of Danville. Same way, goin’ down that NC railroad line from Greensboro to Goldsboro. You always ate going up Mebane Hill, you heard of Mebane, haven’t ya. 

E: Mmhmm, sure

Y: Leaving, going into Mebane. Mebane Hill was always time to eat. 

E: It didn’t matter what time of day it really was, that’s when you ate

Y: It looked like it always worked out it was always time to get a sandwich or something about that time you know. When you left out of here, you were always eatin’ before you left home, and the time barring no complications or anything, it was always about time to eat once you got to Danville. Did your work going up White Oak Mountain, you see.

E: So y’all would all eat together 

Y: Uh now, let’s say back when they had the regular cabs, the conductor and the flagman would always have a meal together 

E: Why did the brakeman get left out?

Y: Well ‘cause he was on the other end of the road, train, ya see. And the brakeman rode the dog box. A little box on the back of the coal tender called the dog box. Doghouse. And that’s where the brakeman rode on the head end on the engine on them steam engines. And on the diesels, he rode on the rear unit. 

E: There was no easy way to get back and forth?

Y: Not on the trains today and besides, you don’t have your regular cabs.  They took the cabs away from the men years ago. Now years ago, the engineers used to have the regular engines, that was before I came on the railroads. And they would go over to the round house here at Spencer to go out and if that engineer would’ve referred to it as my engine. And he kept that engine shined too. Just like the conductors see some of ‘em had curtains in there, he kept it shined and if his flagman didn’t keep that floor mopped up and things, the windas washed, he would catch hell for it too. 

E: I’ve heard stories about engineers having, spending all sorts of money getting brass controls and 

Y: They had brass controls and some of ‘em had their own whistles on there.  I know a fella out here, one time had made a visit over at Norfolk, one time, and went down to the shipyard and got a steam boat whistle. And had that put on an engine. That was quite a bit different from how the regular engine railroad engine was but finally they took their engine and they told ‘em they were company engines 

E: Did that cause a lot of flak? 

Y: Yeah, it did for a while and then when they took the cabs away from the conductors, um, it was the same way. But when they took the cabs away from the conductors, the union made, provided had the company provide for ‘em a place to stay. At the away from home terminal. They provided a room for you there. 

E: At the headquarters

Y: Yeah, yeah. Because they had furnished the cab for you to sleep in if you wanted to but I never did. I had slept on cabs on these work trains and things you go in these strange towns and instead of walking or getting a taxi to go up town, some of these big towns like Durham or Danville Virginia somewhere. Just stay on the cab, sleep on a bunk and uh 

E: The conductors fixed up the cabs the same extent that engineers did?

Y: They sure did.  We had a big shop shed in Spencer overhaul engines, overhauled boxcars, cabs, and a conductor would put his cab in the car department over there at overhaul. I’ve seen a couple of ‘em lose a round trip to stay and see they overhaul that cab just like and put linoleum down in the floor, fix it just like he wanted it. And they would!

E: Can you describe the fanciest cab you remember? Were there any that did a super job at fixing his up?

Y: No more than maybe, he uh, some of em didn’t much care about ‘em but they had their own special type of oil lamps on there and some of em had some pretty good oil lamps on there and that was pretty rough readin’ and writing light at night was them oil lamps. And some of them had pretty good oil lamps that they prized quite a bit. Some of em had linoleum put in the cabs. Some of ‘em even had the wives, the wives they made the curtains or little drapes so many looked right purdy, put up over the windas. Well they did make it look pretty, that was about all. And then they made ‘em cushions up in the cupola.  You’d have to stick your head out the winda to look up the side of the train, to look ya train over for inspection and it was all well-padded up there, slack back at ya, leave a knot on ya head. And when you stuck your head out the winda to look up the train, it was well padded in case the slack would jar ya back and forth. And they, uh, the cushions in the cab, we had a cab supply man here, and uh you need to do some of these conductors would get them a pint of liquor and next trip when he would come out there, he would have an extra cushion on his cab, and you had to supply your own cab with ya coal. They had places you could get coal. 

E: Did it have a coal stove or something?

Y: Yeah, it had coal stoves in there, we kept the burner full of coal all the time. And we would never have any coal pain.  We would find a car coal, good lump coal, and I know quite a few times I’d pull in to the yard some nights up in Greensboro. And the conductors found a good car load of lump coal that would be in the pass track to do our work, also let a first class train by and we had some time to kill after we would get our work done.  He’d have us, uh, cut that car off and bring it down the other track and carry the cab down and just load the cab down stealin’ the coal from some coal man there. 

E: They’d never miss it.

Y: No, five or more buckets at a time.  I mean they wouldn’t miss it on a big ole car load of coal. 

E: Any people you remember that used  to sing on the job at all or did y’all tell stories particularly? 

Y: Well ya didn’t ever have much time for that other than at the other end of the road, for instance, away from home terminal. 

E: So most of the comradery would take place there, on your layover.

Y: Yeah, on ya layover on the way home. And you’d gather up town, we had a big YMCA at Spencer, and a lot of ‘em would, uh, gather up there and tell tales. And we had checkers tables and all that stuff up there at the YMCA and they would go up there and play checkers and spin some yarn and things. Same way at the away from home terminal. 

E: Were there any particular fellows that used to tell tales rather than others?

Y: No no, not particularly, no 

E: Any tales that you remember?

Y: No, not right off hand, no. I  know one night on a coal run out of Altavista, we used to interchange at the Vrginia Railroad that went in with the N&W railroad and Altavista, vVrginia, and the Virginian was a dominant coal railroad, which N&W is and they would come out with a coal train and it would sit out for us and we were down in there one night and this boy was flaggin’ for us, he had just bought himself a brand new overall jacket. Man, it was cold, wind coming off the Stanton River down there.  It was one of the coldest places on the railroad in the winter time. On the back of the steam engine, right off the deck, had the water cooler, our drinkin’ water, and, uh, we were standin’ on the deck, on the engine comin back out, uh, Altavista, N&W connection, Virginian Connection there one night, with a cut of coal, and Clyde, a buddy of mine, bought him a new overall jacket.  That denim was full of starch and everything, almost waterproof, and I got me a drink of water and in the meantime, I got a cup of water and poured it down his overall jacket pocket. And it made him mad when he reached in his pocket full of water in that cold wintertime. 

E: It’s a good way to influence, what is it, a way to make friends and influence others. 

Y: Yeah and we, uh, I will never forget goin’ east, we were called east from Greensboro, we ran the mainline from here to Greensboro and branched off from there to Burlington, Durham, and Raleigh, some of North Carolina. Well we switched Burlington that night in a little place beyond Burlington and was gonna head in at Graham. And two joining, two little towns. Graham is just a small place and we headed into the pass track for a north bound passenger train. Well anyways, we had a meet order that night, there’s snow on the ground. Now about 5-6 inches deep. Pull up the switch and stop. And when I got back up on the engine, the conductor wanted to know what took me so long to throw the switch. And I told the conductor the truth. There was a one-legged man standin’ there in about 6 inches deep of snow and there is this one legged man standin there on crutches right at the switch and I couldn’t get to the switch’ cause of him. ‘Cause he was standin at the right place ‘cause he didn’t know we were gonna have to use the switch at all. He had stopped walking and was gonna stay there until the train got by, which was safe for him to do, but he was in my way. The conductor didn’t believe any of it. He said, “Why in the hell didn’t you knock him out of the way then?” He didn’t believe what I was tellin’ him. But it was a one-legged man standin at the switch. 

E: I guess it was hard to get him to move. 

Y: Yeah, I talked him into it, he didn’t bark at me or nothin’ like that. But it took him a minute or two to get his composure and get out of my way, you know, when I lifted the switch. But all the little things like that and I would walk up side the train one night. That time we had a bother of hobos quite a bit. I walked upside the train over there one time around, uh, the other side of Altavista, Virginia. And, uh, it was pretty moonlight at night and I didn’t have a care in the world. All the sudden, somebody spoke to me. Asked me for a match. Wee hours in the morning and I looked round for one and I could see 6 feet, three pairs of shoes there, standin’ up there in a box car right along about my head. And you talk about age with nobody within a mile of me but as somebody was talking to me standin up in that boxcar, I just froze in my tracks. “Buddy you got a match?” They was wanting to light a cigarette. 

E: Were there rules against letting hobos ride the train? 

Y: We were supposed to run ‘em off. But we had, what you call, special service that year. The railroad police. Hobos and things calling, uh, railroad dicks, you heard the remark, special agent, special service, and it was their job to take’ em off. But some of the, we have had some of the men run ‘em off. But, uh, all I’ve ever seen on the railroad was hobos bigger than me so I wouldn’t say nothin’ to them. They could ride as far as I’m concerned. I had a trainmaster one day on the other side of Greensboro and they had trouble and, uh, I went back and the trainmaster was ridin’ with us. I went back to see what the trouble was and we broke a knuckle, we got back to the engine and he said “did you see that hobo back there in that car?” I said “yessir” “why didn’t you get ‘em off?” I said “man, he was bigger than me and besides that they got special police out there to do that.” He said “I got ‘em off”. I said “Well, yeah, but that fella happened to be a giant of a man. He played professional football right after he got out of college, VMI, he played professional football for the Chicago Bears. A fellow Paul Shoes.” And train master Vanny was, um, vice president of Southern Railroad. He said, “I got ’em off”. I said, “If I was gonna get ’em off and I was big as you, I would have probably got’ em off too, but he had a pass to ride,” is what I told’ em. 

E: Did y’all, you mentioned earlier, talkin’ with people on the Virginia- Danville Railroad, somethin’ like that, and north

Y: Norfolk Western and Virginian Railroad also came in and made a connection at the C&O Railroad and the N&W Railroad at Lynchburg, Virginia, so we had a change with those three different railroads. 

E: They were all totally separate from the Southern Railroad? 

Y: Yeah,

E: Did y’all feel any antipathy towards anyone?

Y: No, no, we always worked together good, and you had people coming in contact quite often over at Altavista, West Virginia, and I’d worked a lot of local freights and knew quite a few of ‘em, 

E: Did y’all feel particularly that Southern was a better railroad? 

Y: No, no, nobody felt that way, no sir. Now I know one day one of those fellas down there in Altavista, Virginia kept me up on their engine, a different engine than what we had. I forget it was a diesel, so it was different motors than what we had and he was showin’ it to me, a new one they had gotten, and uh, we got along with him fine 

E: What was it like, growin’ up with a father on the railroad?

Y: Back them days, I thought it was good.  I thought especially with me, with my daddy, and uh we got along fine, like how all fathers and sons should, and we were closek nit, he did travel a lot, course the whole family did too, but he and I traveled alone in the summertime, 

E: Would y’all get free passes?

Y: Yeah, see life back in them days, they still do have free transportation, and we took advantage of it.  We were always goin’ somewhere. Me and my daddy would take trips out to Arkansas, and we, he and I went over a week or more up to New York, over in Canada, Niagara Falls, and around. And here’s the thing: the biggest thing to a kid was a circus. Back in them days, a circus came to Salisbury every year. There was one circus that went around. the Sparks Brothers and all tent circuses, back in them days, you would always go to the circus and spend the whole day, he and I. And we always, we never did any fishin’ or anything like that but we were always doin’ things together, alone

E: And how did you find the time?

Y: Well, he would get off, it would happen to be one of his off days, and he would make a point to go, if there was a circus in town. And up until I got a regular job in Spencer, as conductor brakeman, I did most of my work with my daddy on the railroad. Brakin’ for em. So, um,

E: That would work out well? 

Y: Yessir, he didn’t show me anymore partiality, and he would give me heck, just as he would any other brakeman, no heck but no, we got along fine. All three of us did. Just cause I was his son, I worked like the main of ‘em did. 

E: Was that typical of things back then, when you were starting out? There would be people have fathers that were working? 

Y: Back when I came on the railroad in 39, you couldn’t get on the railroad unless you had a father or some kin folk on the railroad. But today they are frowned upon. They don’t like to hire people that got people on the railroad. They told me one day that I would hire your boy just as an example. There were two or three boys here that would made good railroad men. And he is liable to come home and be your boss man one day. They look at it at a different angle than what it is now. You had to be a father or somebody like that, a son or somethin like that for you could get on the railroad. Or had an uncle or somebody on there like that. 

E: Were there people that you knew that had 

Y: Well, you might say, that you might have had some pull or that was affiliated with the railroad, you see, 

E: Were there people that had grandparents or, I don’t know, if it could go as far back as great grandparents ?

Y: Well, we would have, well I remember going up to Monroe one night years ago and there was a conductor on the train that had train registers, back in them days at every station there was a register, conductors name, engineers name, the train number, and what time you got there and what time you left, engine number and everything. Number of cars you had and such and such. I remember goin’ to Monroe one night and I looked at the train register and my daddy was registered on there on a passenger train he was running from Salisbury to Washington. Lo and behold, on the line right beneath ‘em was his brother.  Ed Young had registered on a passenger train and just a coincidence, I come right along in just three straight lines right there, three Youngs. My daddy, my uncle, and me. And I had registered as a conductor on a freight train right beneath ‘em. That was kinda a family.

James Cooper (Born March 24, 1905)


Interviewed by Dan Ellison May 24, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Ellison: I’m gonna start off with you telling me your name and how long you worked for the railroad.

Cooper: How many years have I worked on the railroad? I’d rather just answer the questions.

E: Well, well. We will just start off by saying what your name is, just so I can get a voice level here. Just tell me who you are and when you, when did you start working for the railroad, what year. 

C: Well I’m James Cooper, and I started working for the railroad in January 1926. Three years prior to that, which the company did not accredit for, I started working as an electrician helper. My dad was an assistant foreman at that time, electrician.

E: Okay, here in Spencer Shops he was?

C: In the summers I wasn’t in school and I’d go over in the school year and then uh in the summertime I’d work over at the railroad for 3 months. And uh the company when I’d retired didn’t accredit for those years toward my retirement. 

E: So how old were you when you started working for the railroad?

C: 21 years of age. I was born in 1905. I’m 75 years and 2 months old today. 24th of March. 

E: So, you just had a birthday not too long ago.

C: 2 months ago.

E: Where were you born? Were you born here in Spencer?

C: No, I was born in Salisbury, lived there for the first 5 years and then, uh, then Southern passed a ruling that all, uh, supervisors and foreman had to live in Spencer. So, my dad had to move to Spencer so we came here in 1905.

E: You have any idea why they made that rule?

C: 1910 we moved here. Do what?

E: Any idea why they made that rule?

C: Yea, they wanted all the supervisors in Spencer.

E: Just so people would be close? Is that it?

C: Yeah. They didn’t want ‘em living in different parts around Spencer in case they needed ‘em. They wanted ‘em here in Spencer. So, I lived in four places in Spencer since 1910. Three of ‘em been on Rowan Avenue where I live today. The only one I lived off of it was on Second Street. I lived there about all, about well ‘til I was married cause my wife owns this house she was born here and I…

E: What year did you get married in?

C: 1933. Right in the height of the depression.

E: Not the best of times to, uh… 

C: No, it really wasn’t but we made the best of it. I never once cut off a single day in 47 years of working for Southern. It was the only thing I followed in 1960 to Atlanta when they closed this place down near 1960. They, uh, moved to Atlanta. They closed it down here on Saturday on the 30th of July and I went down the next morning. The train got to Atlanta that night and the very next morning I went to work in Atlanta. I just lost one day, I was working 7 days a week at the time.

E: Really in 1960 you were working 7 days a week?

C: Oh yea. And, uh…

E: You were a very hard worker!

C: Well no, no. I take that back. It was five days and I was off two days a week. But I worked regular all the time. Then I went to Atlanta and worked there without losing a single hour except one time I was off sick for three days and…

E: That is a great work record. So you were 21 when you started working for the railroad, do you remember things out of your childhood? Going to elementary school or something?

C: Oh yeah I remember going to school, Spencer School that used to be right over there! But it’s torn down except for the high school building.

E: So that is where you went to school?

C: Yeah. And uh it burned down the year I graduated. These kids said they burned school to get me out.

E: *Laughs* How did you, your father was an electrician also?

C: Well he was an electrical supervisor.

E: Electrical supervisor.

C: Yeah, he was the second in command and he kept that job up until about the time the diesel started coming in and then he was promoted to head electrician; kept that job until he retired and he died in 1952.

E: What sort of things did you do as a child. Did, did y’all used to play around at the railroad yard at all?

C: No, my father would never allow me to go over in the yard. They had a bunch of small engines parked up and down the fence. They used to have a wooden fence all the way around it up to the depot and he would never allow me to go over there. And I didn’t go over there until I started over there. In the summer in 1923 was the first time I went to work over there. Was the first time I had ever been in the shops. They, Southern, was building the new roundhouse over at the time and, uh, I after thought Julian in Salisbury, Bob Julian, and uh I worked with him for some time. 

E: So, you never, were railroads a big part of your life when you were a kid. Did you talk about it with…

C: Well that was the chief industry here in Rowan County, especially in Spencer. It was a regular job. About 4 out of 5 people you knew worked for the railroad. Just see ‘em going to work or coming home from work at the regular time; every day streets were just full of the people. I thought about  it here lately, sittin’ on the porch, you don’t see anyone now cause there’s no one workin’ over at the shop now cause the shops closed. Completely now. And, uh… 

E: They sure are and just about fallin’ apart now too.

C: That’s right. I hope I live long enough to see this museum over here but they keep putting it off, putting it off. When they are gonna have the opening day for it over there. I don’t know where I’ll be around here then or not.

E: They’re supposed to be having some sort of a small little visitors’ shop kind of thing open this summer, I think. Not really a museum at all but there are people evidently that come through the town and stop and want to look at something. 

C: Well I talked and had myself who they gonna get to uh, get these engines and cars in first class shape. That’s what they wanna do. Who are they gonna get? Southern sure isn’t gonna furnish them. I don’t know if they can get any qualified people to do that or not. Cause the people that could’ve done it are getting’ too old now to go back over there and go to work again so I don’t know how they are gonna do it. 

E: I’m not quite sure myself. My guess is…

C: Durham said he was gonna do it and Atlantic.(?) I’d like to see it. That’d be real nice. 

E: One of these days it’s gonna happen.

C: Yeah, but I don’t know when.

E: It’s a question of money I think at this point.

C: Yeah it is. And the longer it’s gonna go the longer it’s gonna take. 

E: Mmhm.

C: With everything needin’ replacin’ as it is.

E: So you, you always figured that you’d end up workin’ for the railroad?

C: Well that was the only job I ever had workin’ for the railroad. And as I said while ago, I never was cut off. I’d work as a helper.

E: When you were growing up did you ever think about doing something else? Did you ever want to be I don’t know…

C: No never.

E: I don’t know a doctor, lawyer, or an Indian chief as they say. 

C: No inclination like that at all.

E: Where did you learn how to be an electrician from? 

C: Well I just saw that my dad was one and I’d try to be one too. And then working as a helper and bigger jobs I was workin’ with Arthur Sweet. He’s dead now. He was on train control. I was workin’ with him and I learnt the operation of train control and when you operate that I got started that way. And then I paid attention to other things going on and picked up some points on that. So I really could handle my part of it alright. Well then later on, uh, during the war they uh set the helpers up to mechanics that were qualified. And when it was a fourth reduction…

E: Oop, I don’t know.

C: That stopped runnin and this other one kept on. 

E: I guess I’m gonna need to go into the shop soon. Aww this is gummed up in the works. It needs a little bit of oil. Some sort of cleaning additive. I think it’s, yeah it’s working. 

C: You want some more? 

E: Well let’s just wait a little while. If it stops again, we will try something.

C: Well that went on for a while and then the general chairman placed a rule that. There it is again. 

E: So far so good. So, you never actually worked as an apprentice, a formal apprentice kind of.

C: Do what?

E: You never worked as a formal apprentice electrician..

C: No. No, I never did uh.. The general passed this rule that you either had to give up your job as a helper electrician or go on to seniority electrician. And uh I decided to go on to regular seniority. And I gave up my helper’s rights. And then when I, when the shops closed down I was a regular electrician. I’s workin’ the first shift at the time and I was holdin’ my own and uh when the shop closed down I was able to go to Atlanta. And I had 10 years to go on my pension. Well I was too old to not to go so uh I decided ’Id go to Atlanta the last week we went was very hectic for me because I was financial secretary of my union and uh the local channel was on vacation and I was the next rankin’ man here to take care of anything that came up in regards to electrician. 


Lewis Barber (Born October 28, 1898)

Fireman and Engineer

Interviewed by Dan Ellison April 19, 1980 with Lottie Lemly Barber (Wife)

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Dan Ellison: Why don’t you just say your name, tell me your name.

Lewis Barber: Lewis Barber

E: Why don’t you tell me when you first started working for the railroad. I’m just testing the level on this.

Lottie Barber: 1919

B: October the 16th 1919. October the 17th 1919

E: And what year were you born in? 

B: I was born in 1898. October 28th

E: Where were you born?

B: Stokes County.

E: where?

B: Stokes County

E: Is that north of here?

B: Well it’s just above Winston 

L: Pinnacle, Honey

E: Excuse me?

B: Stokes County, where I was born there near a little town called Pinnacle, right at the foot of the mountain.

E: When did y’all move to, when did you move to Spencer here?

B: I came here after World War I. 1918.

E: Did you move here after working for the railroad?

B: Well I built this house 31 years ago and I lived down there at 18, so we first built over there, so yeah I was working for the railroad. 

E: Um, what did your parents do?

B: My father was a carpenter and a brick layer.

E: How did you happen to want to be a railroad man?

B: I don’t know, I just drifted over here after World War I and got a job.

E: What was your first job?

B: First job I had was a fireman on the railroad.

E: Hmm

B: In 1919.

E: I just spent the morning with a fireman.

B: Who was that?

E: Uhhh, Thomas Fredrick Henry, T Fred Henry.

B: Oh yeah I know, big old man. He come here a little bit before I did. Yeah, I know him. He lives in Salisbury. 

E: That’s right.

B: Fred Henry. Yeah, big ole boy. I worked for his brother. All dead but him, I think.

E: Mmhm

B: Yeah, I worked with his brother. 

E: Yeah, he is big. 

B: Yeah, big ole guy. Knew him well, yeah Fred Henry. 

E: So you started off working as a fire man

B: Yeah

E: And what year was that?


E: That’s right.

B: I was 17 

E: How did you happen to get that job?

B: Well I had an uncle as a road foreman and he gave me a job. Lived here. That’s all I knew.

E: So you knew somebody on the inside.

B: Yeah, it’s hard to get a job back, then you gotta know somebody 

E: How long did you work as a fireman?

B: Well  I don’t know. It was a slow promotion; it might have been 20 years or more before I was promoted. I think I was really officially promoted around 1940. Almost stood examination but I’d been runnin engines before that, before I was ever promoted, been there a long time. Before they ever got a class up. All the fellas I did a class with they all dead but one who took examination at the time I did. 

E: You went to classes to become an engineer?

B: Oh yes, yeah, yeah.

E: Hmm what was the classes like?

B: Well uh you had a book, first, second and third year form to fill out as you learned. All about the engine. You had to know everything about the engines from the rail to the top of the stack. What is was build out of and all about it, you know.

E: Did you have to study it a lot?

B: Oh yeah. And she helped me a whole lot. 

E: You helped him study?

B: Oh yeah! 

L: It was a book about that thick. 

B: Yeah, it sure was! 

E: Do you know it all also?

L: Oh no. 

B: Well it’s hard to remember now. These guys, they don’t have to do nothing. They go over, get on the engine and go to work. They go to Atlanta about 6 weeks training and go right to work but then you had to know somethin about an engine to be an engineer. 

E: You start workin on steam engines?

B: Oh yeah, that’s all they had. They had no diesels until well about 1930 something before we ever had any diesels yet

E: What sorta things did you do as a fireman? Shovel coal?

B: Keep the engine hot, keep the engine clean, wait on the engineer

E: What sort of hours did you keep?

B: Well 8 hours, different shifts, 1st trick and 2nd trick and whatever order they want you on. I think 7-3, 3-11, 11-7.

E: So you might be on any one of those shifts any different week or day?

B: Well actually you worked for whichever the order wants to. My order group took me down to Norwood, Summers’ house (?) one day. There’s a certain way you don’t be. Wherever they need you. They want you in Winston, they send you to Winston, Danville

E: How did you like that?

B: Well I liked it fine. There wasn’t any money much in it. Didn’t make but 3.20 each day for 8 hours and burn about 12 ton of coal

E: Hmm so when you first started out that’s how much you were making?

B: Didn’t matter much when I quit. I been retired 16 years and only made 23.50 for 8 hours and now they get  84 dollars for 8 hours. In 16 years I got 80 some dollars. It’s gone up that much in 16 yearsI’ive been off. 

E: 80 dollars, 8 hours ain’t too bad

B: Well 84 dollars unless they work on time and a half, then they get time and a half of that which is about 135 dollars. So, if you work second shift in afternoons and they called you back in in the morning on 1st shift, you just had 8 hours so they have to pay you time and a half for that 8 hours.  

E: Oh really?

B: Make about 135. Then you might work that 8 hours or work overtime on that and make 200 dollars before you ever get back home. Now if you work several hours overtime, you see after you went back on time and a half, you would make that much money. I made much as 60, 65 dollars a day several times before I quit. I would make 21 dollars a day on standard pay. Or was it 63? 

W: I don’t remember

B: Somethin like that. Well I quit 16 years ago and they took 7 dollars and a half a day out of it and I got the rest. Now they take about 35, 40 dollars a day out of your wages which you can afford to do that when you are makin that much. 

E: That’s true and they take it out for what pension or

B: Social Security

E: Social Security 

B: That’s right, yeah

E: What were the normal day be like?

B: Well 

E: When you first started out

B: Well I’d have to switch cars, classify all the cars in the yard you see. Just 8 hours of hard work is all I know. Only 5 men on the crew. 3 on the ground and 2 on the engine. Now they just work 2 men most of the time and see they got a hump yard. They just pull the whole train back and they got an engineer up there and one man pull the pins and some puts the tire, puts the retarders on over in the yard and goes on certain tracks to classify them you see. 

E: So you were doin that also 

B: Yeah, we did that here. It was all did by hand work, workin labor over there. It’s done by machinery where two men do the work for 5 you see. 

E: Would that, would that be part of the fireman’s job?

B: Yeah, yeah.  Well uh, no we didn’t do that. We just had to do the fireman’s job of keepin the engine hot and look out for his side of the train on the engine when you was firing. It’s a different set up now at this new yard. You see it’s called a hump yard. In this, they pull the whole train back and drop the cars on each track they need to go on. High Point, Greensboro, where ever on a certain track. 2 men do about what 5 men

E: They’ve got all those things figured out with computers and everything else

B: Yeah, that’s right. They got a walkie talkie on the engine now. We had call boys that could tell you what to do but there weren’t any retarders on the track to stop the cars like they do over there, you see. This is, this is, two men doing the work of five men now.

E: Did you ever stay with a particular engineer when you worked for Spencer? 

B: I had different ones every day. Off and on. Till Winton Comes (?)  Yeah, I really liked the different ones every day. 

E: Now I heard that a lot of times, would fix up their trains engines real special 

B: Well the engine you see then, the company would put your name on one side and the fireman’s on the other. You know, have your name on the side of your winder. You see the men, all well, all the old engines then, and now the company bought’ em all back for whatever because it got too much. They wouldn’t go out unless they had their engine. They couldn’t even get a train over the road. Fred Henry would tell you that unless they had a certain engine to run with. And when it went into shop for repair, why they wouldn’t go out. They’d say “Mark me off, engines in the shop.” They couldn’t make it with another engine. Just like you were drivin in your car and you get in someone else’s ole scrap goin down the road. 

E: Did you feel the same way about the 

B: Yeah, yeah that’s right. Some of them get in the rhythm of a good train rollin half the time, work wide open with the throttle gettin nowhere. Just like anything else, hired a lot of people that weren’t engineers, just got the money and that’s all. Didn’t know any bit more. Then he’d quit and then when he get to work

E: Really?

B: That’s right. It’s just like your hiring for anything. That’s what hurt the engine. Some people, they’re smart. Just do the work and these other brothers don’t do it. These guys are just working, get paid for that pay for all their time on the railroad and it’s costing you another 100 dollars a day for the dead beats. That’s right, that’s right. There’s a lot of honest people, yet there’s a lot of bums, you see. It falls back on you if they go to the restroom and stay too long or something. The foreman would get after them and they said they were not nice to me. They did this, they did that ya know.  Well the man that is workin hard gotta pay for all that. That’s just what’s happened to the union and things now. 

E: That’s right

E: Well, getting back to the rail road now. Let’s see where were we?

B: You was asking about what we did and what were the hours. 

E: Yeah, what were you doing during your 8 hours? Tell me about your job. 

B: Well I was keepin the engine hot. Keep ya busy firing the engine. Shovelin coal. 

E: What was that like? 

B: Well 

E: What exactly would you do?

B: Well I was over there shovelin coal and I’d just throw it in there and burn it all ya see. 

E: Mmhm

B: 10, 11 times a day, it took that much to run it. In the engine, 8 hours for a small engine 

E: At the end of the day, would you be all tired?

B: Well yeah, sometimes I’d be tired before I’d even get home. Many a time.

E: How long would it take during the day before you started to get tired?

B: Well you were tired about the time you got to work, you know how that is.

E: Yeah

B: Yeah, well I don’t know I made it alright. Once or twice the mornin got me (?)

E: Mmhmm, what did you do for lunch?

B: Well you carried your lunch with you. 

E: Did you have to?

B:Well that’s uh

E: Would it have to be eaten while you were working?

B: Well that’s right, a lot of times, yeah. Cause you’d only have 20 minutes sometimes. Sometimes you would have to stop and get a hot lunch, sometimes you wouldn’t. There wasn’t anything to light the system, it was real dark over here. And I can’t even now the yard is all lit up. In the new yard. Very dangerous, some people got killed, legs cut off, and arms cut off. 

E: Really?

B: Yes sir, every few days somebody’d get an arm or leg cut off. It was dark and you couldn’t see em. Before they left, they had it all lit up. You see here pretty good. They just moved up here about a year ago to Linwood. It’s always been here. I ain’t even been up there. That’s where I did a lot of hard work. 

E: They actually do work in the yards.

B: Yeah, yes, it’s a big yard havin 4 to 5 thousand cars a day. Classifyin’, during the war it would be ammunition, supplies, explosives. Too very dangerous.

E: Ever have any blow up here?

B: No, no, nothin’ except a magazine blowed up here once and killed her uncle. About 1905. That’s before I come here. But they had a place where they kept the dynamite when they were transferring it from one train to another building and one way or another it blowed up in 1905. 

W: Powder house

B: Powder house and killed a bunch of people 

W: I was 7 years old I guess…1907. 

B: Well I told 5. I don’t remember. Cause I wasn’t even over here until 1918. 

W: When my uncle was killed, that was awful. 

B: That’s why I moved down here. It was just a big old box dirty town. It had the biggest railroad center between New York and Atlanta. Sometimes there would be as many as 30 or 40 engines sittin’ over with black smoke just a rollin’. You see ‘em gettin ready or workin’ on ‘em and they all was sittin’ over there with 

E: That’s right. All you had were steam engines

B: Yeah and sometimes they would come this way but very seldom. Most of the time it went from the west this way. And that is the reason we were in the woods. Because hardly any of it got airborne right this way, you see, and if it did the trees, they would protect you, if you did hang clothes out on the line. You washed, they’d be just as black and it would take just a minute to do that. 

E: Really?

B: Yes sir. Had a lot of times. This Main Street off 49, that’s the highway up there, ya know, you couldn’t see.  You almost had to stop and walk because the black smoke would just be rolling right down on the street. Yeah, it would be any worse than 15 to 20, 25 engines sittin’ there with the black smoke just a rollin’ out of it.  

E: Doesn’t sound good!

B: Yeah, well it’s just a black dirty town. What red mud was black. And all these old houses would be rough because cinders would lay on top in the attics, yet we have shifted from burnt coal, let’s see. 

E: What was it like workin in one of those engines? Real dirty job too?

B: Well yeah, sure. It was sure, it was a dirty job. You wore a pair of overalls that have grease and turn black. I’d keep the hose on the engine and scald it down the deck and all around there with the coal but it was still dirty. It was a real dirty job. Like working in a coal mine almost. All that black dirt will get in your head and your throat.

E: Did it make you cough and stuff?

B: Oh sure. It was no easy job. They didn’t even have no way to keep yourself warm except keep door open for a long time.  You know got a curtain on the back that you could fasten. And side curtains and all. Very, very cold. 

W: The explosion was October the 2nd 1908. 

B: Was it that late? She got a book 

W: This is a Gobble book

B: A Gobble book of her generation for her people to know. 

E: Mmhmm

W: Yep, the powder house blew up. 

B: That’s right

W: He was a 

B: Fireman

W: Yeah,  he was a fireman over there but by trade he was in the carpenter shop.

B: See they had a real machine and hose and everything on it and that always be about 10- 15 or whoever was in that department that they had and they’d have to take and reel and pull it by hand, ya see. And run a bunch of men to a fire. That’s, that’s the way it used to be in all those small towns, ya know. 

E: Mmhm

B: They had all those firemen pull it by hand. That’s what it was, yeah. The company had its own fire department and they’d practice every day, you see. Got a little extra money. 

E: And he got killed.

B: Explosion, yeah.

W: Well the explosion blew him all to pieces

E: The explosion killed him?

B: Yeah,  I don’t know how many people got killed

W: Well there was a crowd of’ em

B: There were several of ‘em. Several of them were hurt bad and there was cripple after I come  that was still working so..

W: There was a Mr. Stafford.He exploded to pieces too

B: I don’t remember that. That was before I came there 

W: I was only 7 years old

B: 1908, see that I didn’t get here ‘til 1916.. About 8 years before I ever came here. 

W: I remember he came back three times and the engine had gone into town and we heard this awful noise and we lived on 3rd Street. 

B: Look back at the winda

W: And we, uh, almost to the house, there was debris.

E: Really?

B: Yeah, she was born right where we lived, right down there across on 3rd Street, where she was born right back there in the field close to this church. Where she was born. I was born in Stokes County. So, she didn’t get far away from home.

W: All life was work at the shops. 

B: Just about all.

E: Did you always want to be an engineer once you started working? 

B: Well, yeah, yeah, sure everybody wants to be the top man, I imagine, than do all the dirty work. It’s all hard, but it’s hard, but the engineer got all the responsibility, you see, of the whole engine and the crew too, wha’ts in front of you and all. Well last big den (?) like we used to use all, big ole engines round with that’s one of ‘em.I’id give one of em back to 

E: Really?

B: Yeah, I give one of ‘em back to the museum over there. That’s when you had to reach across down all uh around with 

E: Yeah something! Um,. what kind of clothes would you wear to work? 

B: Overalls, bib overalls

W: Bib overalls. 

B: And a jacket. If it’s cold, you would wear pants underneath and a sweater under ‘em overalls like that if it’s real cold. 

E: You’d shovel about 12 tons of coal a day?

B: Yeah, that’s right for 3.48 cents

E: Must’ve gotten pretty good muscles. 

B: Well I’ve been pretty stout. I was born in 1898 and I’m still here. I can’t see that’s my trouble. I have no center vision in my right eye. And not too much in the other one. No cataracts, no glaucoma. No nothin’, just no circulation in the side you see. I could see to get around to go to work and I can see to get around to mow the yard. I don’t do too good a job but I can’t see to read the paper or nothin’.

E: Mmhmm

B: I just have no vision. Either way, can see up and down, see things comin’ but I can’t see the other way. 

E: When did you retire from the railroad?

B: 19 uh 1963, I reckon, somethin like that. 

E: You were an engineer when you retired?

B: Yeah, yeah

E: Do you remember your first run as an engineer?

B: Naw because I run an awful long time before I ever was promoted. Ya know course after you go to firin’, you got to go runnin the old engine there and they’d want you to run a lot of times and fire too so then you know that’s right, they’d make you do the work. 

E: What would you be doing? 

B: Sometimes you’d be standin’ off talking to somebody if you was in a place switchin’ some cars or somethin’ there. In a little place they’re goin to get something to drink or something. And the engine would stay hot for 45 minutes. Pretty good with nobody bothering it. They left to do ordinary work around. Yeah, I got the hardest work that was done on the railroad down the Yadkin Railroad. See this Southern used to run into Norwood.   You know where that is, do you? 

E: Nah

B: 44 miles from here and they used to go down there and haul peaches that were in the southern peach orchards and that’s all the cars would take the empty down there and bring the cars back here and re-ice them. Re- ice em for New York. Right here in Spencer. And send the peaches up to New York. Then they be put on trucks and all and they don’t even haul it all anymore. Well that’s a thing of the past. They got refrigerator cars now they use to haul big cars, etcetera down there. 

E: Was there a big ice plant here also? 

B: Yeah, it was its done torn down now too. Yeah, there was a big place in place where you could re-ice about 50 cars at a time on a platform, you see. You’d see men workin all summer. Re-icing the cars. They’d re-ice ‘em and send ‘em down there 40 cars at a time. Then when they’d come back, they’d re-ice ‘em again, then take ‘em up to New York and stuff. Peaches. 

E: Did you make runs to New York while you were on..

B: No, no. 

E: What was the longest kind of run you’d make? 

B: Well, up in Virginia, Yadkin to there.. I mean to Norwood. You see I wasn’t on the road. I was a yard man. I used to haul all the coal to Dukeville down here. That big powerplant. I was a yard man but I worked on the road some. Fred Henry was a road man. That big fellow you were talkin’ with.

E: Yeah

B: Yeah. he was passenger train then. Well I was hired on the yard and I worked mostly on the yard but I worked some on the road too. 

E: So, your job in the yard was switching and 

B: Yeah, I sat in a classified car and old Thomas switcher.  We had to work all this over there back in the day. Yadkin, Lexington, all those places. All day hell, with the cars rollin’ all they was. Lotta work. 

E: Were you just extra careful? And that’s how you didn’t get hurt?

B: (laughs) Well I was always on the job. 

W: You got hurt one time. 

B: Yeah, I got hurt a couple times. There were a couple wrecks. And you were lucky to be out there and not get killed then. 

W: Then you had one turn over on you

B: Then I had one turn over on me one time and got hurt. I jumped off and it hurt me 

E: Can you tell me a little bit about that? Do you remember?

B: Well we was comin’ out of the yard down a long hill with a coal train and the train jumped the track, and of course, the first thing I had done was tore the break rigger out of one of the engines when it hit the rails, and of course, the train just kept on going. And, uh, it come on down to the yard office.  You  know there’s that one place where the one track where they used to keep the cabs, you  know,’ til they kept one out on the train and, uh, it turned over these cabs and it kinda stopped and there was men that used to sleep in there comin’ down from Asheville and one of them climbed out of the cupola up in there after the engine stuck its nose in the cab he was in and he had on red underwear. He was a conductor on the Asheville division. And it turned over on my side and the engineer was holdin’ on, layin’ on its side almost on that side then jumped off on my side and run into this train, side swiped it. And this guy was sleeping in there on the track right along. With Spencer full of cabs and the men a lot of them from Asheville slept in there. They had a stove in the cabs and a refrigerator, and they cooked in it and kept ice in there and that was their home on the roads and that’s the way it happened. 

E: And you crawled out

B: I crawled out of that side and jumped out on a pile of rail.  They was just buildin’ the second main line through the yard at that time and the second one just about got done and well, it stove up and hurt my back for a long time. 

E: Any people killed in that?

B: No, no, we just had a coal train behind us you see. We wasn’t goin’ fast, the coal was heavy comin’ down the hill you see. A truck full of coal was awful heavy, you see. Then a carload of coal would weight about 60 tons but now it weighs about 280 tons. Because the cars are bigger and heavier. Used to think a big car of coal with 60 tons was a big car at that time; now thinkin about it a car with 280 tons go downhill yeah.. That’s the difference in cars an all. All ball bearing cars aren’t even full(?)

E: Mhm

B: So that’s the difference

E: Any particular models of trains that you liked riding more than the others? 

B: Well, no, there was all the first engine I ever fired on was 1825 and from that on up to 3800s and 1600s, 1800s 4800s, and 6300s and 1300s and 1400s for passenger service. I didn’t even know that there was a passenger service going up to the Asheville division that was a low wheel type engine and they used it on a count. They had five of them run from here to Asheville. Because it was a low wheel, they could pull more, you see, and make the mountains with it. That same class engine with a 72-inch wheel on it was a bad thing on the main line but that was the mountain type. That’s only about a 4-foot driver on that right now. I’ve forgotten.

E: Did you ever make runs to the mountains? 

B: No, I’ve been up there but haven’t. We’ve been up there several times but I wasn’t on that division. Asheville was a pretty rough division to be on, had a lot of runaways on the mountains you know. 

E: They sorta lose control going down? Down the hills or something? 

B: Well yeah, that’s right. They had a spare track that had a man look after it and if the engineer was running away, he’d blow the whistle a certain blow and he’d head on back into the mountain on a spare track. There were two or three of them out there yet; they’re still usin’ ‘em. If the air or somethin happened to it, the air would go out you see, it happened a lot to the runaways, you see, a runnin train. 

E: So tell me about going to engineering school, to school to become an engineer. 

B: Well I had to work over there and you did this other fillin’ out your form for everything at home, go to school for the first year and after the first year, then the second year and the third year-that was it. You didn’t go to school you just..

E: You studied and worked.

B: You were workin’, you were workin’. And you know what to do, what everything was about then. Slidin’ valves, spool valve, wall shop valve, guess smooth cylinders all, all everything.

E: Did you have a test you had to take? 

B: Oh yeah, it was super-heated engine, saturated steam. See, saturated steam is not nearly as powerful as super-heated steam because it’s reheated, you see, several times degrees hotter.  There’s not enough water, you see, comin’ out, you see, that piece out there, it’s condensed, you see, it just comes out of where it’s leaking and where it’s just blue comin’ out, ya see. Much more powerful, ya see. I had it one time, the saturated steam and super-heated steam was inside the flue.  The super-heated is dryer steam, you see. 

E: You always liked it when they made changes like that? And got more advanced technology.

B: They did that, of course, all the time. They built ‘em in Baldwin, Ohio and Richmond, vVrginia, different places.  This was colored people built good engines in Ohio, ya know, on the engine business. That Lima locomotive works in Ohio, they made an awful good engine. 1800 was and good steam too.

E: What was the best part about working for the railroad? 

B: Well I don’t know.  There was always something thrilling. It might be a good day or a bad day. I was always anxious to go, you never know what it would be. It’s like any other exciting day. A rainy day, a cloudy day, it might be a good day, it might be a bad day. You might have good coal, good engine, good crew and be just fine.  The next day, it would be all different.  You never know.  It’s just like you’re goi’n round doin’ this kind of work, some of it might be yours, some of it might not. 

E: Would you have to stay away from home a lot? 

B: Well, sometimes they’d put ya out of town to work, like ya know  go to Danville.  Things like that. Or if somebody got hurt or sick or something’s off, they’d call you in and tell you to stay until they got someone to relive you.  You know I’m sayin go up to Winston or something. Wherever they needed you, they’d send ya. 

E: Tha’ts true. 

Wife: Tell him about the time that when Roosevelt went by. 

B: Oh yeah.  Well I,Ppresident Roosevelt’s corpse came by here.  I was on the engine sittin’ up in the yard and the trains all had to stop everything movin’ when the President, I mean the train come by.  They made everything stop ‘til this train got by you. I sat there and cried when the president when by, the train went by just as slow and had a lot of guests with several cars. But his body was going from Warm Springs, Georgia to New York or Washington, wherever he was buried. But I thought a lot of him, you know.  He was a life saver during the depression before you know. Cause people, you know, had no income before like they do now you see.

Luther Ellis Burch (B. June 5, 1889) – Part 1

Call Boy, Night Clerk, Boiler Inspector, and General Car Foreman

Interviewed by Daniel Ellison on January 19, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Daniel Ellison: So why don’t you start off with telling me your name?

Luther Burch: My name is Luther Burch, I’m ninety years of age. I came with my father and mother and her maid of the family to Spencer, February- eighteen hundred and ninety? seven. We moved from Burlington to Spencer, on account of my father, he was employed with the Southern  Railroad– Spencer Shops. He was formerly employed with the Richmond Danville Railroad.

E: Was your grandfather fairly well to do then or not?

B: No, he was just a poor, tenant farmer and, but he had, when he was in the Dakotas,  he had frostbite on his right arm, and it made him, disqualified him for full work on the farm and he got a pension from the federal government ‘round about $60 a month, which is a pretty good sum back in those days compared with what it is now. I know when I first went to work for the railroad company, I got $25 a month, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day.

E: What year was that?

B: That was 1904. Went to work for the Southern Railroad. Southern Railroad was organized in 1894 by Samuel Spencer. Samuel Spencer was a protege of J.P. Morgan, a great financier. You used to hear a lot about J.P. Morgan and you very seldom hear his name mentioned now anymore, but he was one of the outstanding financiers of the country– just before the turn of the century and up, up until the uh early part of the uh– 20th century; he was very prominent. But he, uh, made him president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and he served as the president of the B and O Railroad and he, uh, got him to organize the Richmond-Danville Railroad that was in bankruptcy and, uh, he, Samuel Spencer, he acquired the line from Washington to Orange, V.A. He had his own Orange and Alexander railroad then from Orange to Danville, V.A., he had, it was called the Virginia Middlin’ Railroad. And the line from Danville to Greensboro was built during the Civil War by the Confederate Army– the 17th Tennessee Regiment. They built that line from Greensboro to Danville. They got the rails from lining Tennessee and Ohio Railroad which ran from Charlotte to Taylorsville N.C. and shipped that rails by flat cars to Greensboro and laid the line. They used the track there to lay that line ‘cause it needed it more for military service than it did for the operation of a small railroad. I’d imagine it was about 20, 25 lbs. rail. I don’t know what it was then– different gauges of rail. Some museums have different gauges of rail–the first rail they had and on down.

E: What differences would the gauges make?

B: Well that’s the weight, so many pound to the foot and now it’s, uh,– the pounds to the foot was very small compared to today’s. I remember when they got up to 90 lb. rail; they thought that was enormous in comparison to the say 20 lb. rail they had. When it got up to be 120 lb. rail, they said, “Oh, we’re really going.” And so, it’s much heavier than that now. I haven’t had any late figures on it but rail they’re ridin’ now, that rail is right up over 200 lbs. per foot. I haven’t got an expression on it ‘cause I been retired now for 23 years, but didn’t keep up with the weights of the rail.

E: Would a heavier gauge allow a heavier railroad?

B: Oh, yes, yeah. When the Southern Railroad was operating, they had engines 18,19 inch cylinders. And beginning to lay heavy rail they got up to 20 and 21 inch, then they went from that to 22 inch rail and they even got up to 30 inch cylinders. 22 inch and 28 inch cylinders was 5 and 600 class, seven, eight hundred class engines and about 22 inch diameter of the cylinder and 28 inch stroke. That is, that was the stroke from the cylinder, the length of the cylinder, how they get the stroke, that’s how they get the power and the steam… The cylinders give them the power, the traction to move the freight. 

E: You said you started working for the railroad in 1904 was it?

B: Yeah, September 1904.

E: How old were you?

B: I was 15.

E: 15. What was your first job?

B: I was a call boy, calling the engine crews. Calling the engineers and finding them. Walk all night long, ‘cause they ran a lot of trains back in those days. Ten, twelve, they finally got it up to about 20 cars. Now they have 200 cars. Big comparison then.

E: So you were a coal boy was it or…?

B: A call

E: A call boy.

B: I worked on that about two years and I was promoted to night clerk in 1900 and the latter part of 1906. 

E: How did you happen to get your job as a call boy?

B: You had to go out when they get the train ready; they’d have to send a call boy. The yard office, they’d call the conductor and they two brakemen, but in the round house they’d have to call the engineer and the fireman and have to call them out of bed, you know, “I want you to leave here at 2:20 this morning” and 3:20 or 4:20 or whatever the hour of the night was. That was before they had electric lights, see, they have to serve 10 days apprenticeship without any pay to learn the routes where everybody lived and then you carry a lantern with you. You go into a man’s room and the first thing you do is you light his lamp, then you wake him up and say “sign this call book.” And that to indicate that he had been properly informed of the time he was supposed to report for duty. But if you go back to sleep now after you sign that call book, the responsibility would be on him. All I was to get his signature on the call book

E: You finished your job once you got his signature.

B: I’d light his lamp and he’d get up and go dress. But some of them, they’d be so sleepy they’d go back, they didn’t have any 8 hour or maybe haven’t been to bed but maybe 2 or 3 hours and they had to go back again on the road. That was before they had the, uh, Adamson 16-hour law. You couldn’t work over 16 and after you complete your run, you had to have 8 hours of rest before you could go back again. 

E: Did they ever get mad at you, when you came in and woke them up?

B: Oh yeah, yeah. They’d want to fight you, almost. Well, you couldn’t blame them. You can understand the situation, they just practically exhausted, you know, and, uh. They had a boarding house over in East Spencer called the Red Onion.

E: The Red Onion? 

B: Yeah. A lot of them stayed in the Red Onion and, uh, I was walkin’ down the hall there, they had about 30 to 40 rooms I’d imagine, and some fella, I had an oil light and I heard a BANG, you know, the shot fired down– shattered the globe on my lantern and put out the light. But I knew from the sound where it was, and I got out of there. Yeah, a man had some sufficient sleep and rest and he was ready to go, but those that didn’t have but about 3 or 4 hours sleep, he was, it made him kind’ve mad cause we called him so early. 

E: Did you ever actually get into a fistfight with any of them?

B: Oh no, no. I didn’t. I was just a chap then. I could get out of the way, I could out-run him. I was like an antelope, I could out-run most of the boys my age.

E: Sounds like you had to do some running a couple times

B: Oh yeah, yeah. I had to do some running. And I had some fellas draw a gun on me one time. 

E: How did that happen?

B: Well, I kept, I was callin’ from his winda’ and he said “get away from there.” He didn’t wanna. But, but he’d been uptown– it was when they had saloons in Salisbury and I think he was just about half shot and he hadn’t been to bed just about an hour or so and

E: He got kinda mad about being woken up.

B: I kept peckin’ on the window and he said “get away from there” and reached under his bed, under his pillow and drew out a gun. Boy, I left, went back to report to the foreman, you know, what he’d done. They sent another man with him and finally got him out of there. He admitted doing it, but he wasn’t conscious what he was doing, I think, though they disqualified him for the run, ‘cause he was intoxicated. The representative went back to him to see his condition, you see. 

E: They weren’t allowed to be drunk, in other words.

B: No, no. A lot of them lost their job on account of it. He wasn’t on duty then. He hadn’t been signed up. You have to be on duty to lose your job. It’s a violation of rule G. Used to be a lot of them got fired and stay off for a long time before they would take ‘em back. But that would be the Keely cure. Sent people over to Keely in Greensboro, give ‘em the Keely cure. 

E: What’s the Keely cure?

B: That was, uh, detoxification– dryin’ ‘em out. They call it dryin’ ‘em’ out, this day and time, but those were something like a nursing home and they’d work with ‘em, give ‘em, straighten ‘em out. 

E: What was your next job for the railroad?

B: Well now, I was promoted to night clerk, the latter part of nineteen hundred and six. And I hadn’t, uh, paid on a salary, and I hadn’t had any, supposed to had a vacation, a week’s vacation, but no, they never did give ‘em cause didn’t have anybody to put in my place. But the Jamestown Exposition was at Norfolk, where the Norfolk Naval Operating Base is located now. That’s where the exposition grounds were. And I told them, I had to go see that exposition, I’d believe I’d never see another one in my lifetime. That was in nineteen hundred and seven. Well they put on a special train from Atlanta to Jamestown–they called it the Jamestown Special. It ran from ‘Lanta to Norfolk, then they had two regular trains from Danville to Norfolk. One in the mornin’ and one at night.

E: So you ended up going to that Jamestown Exposition?

B: Yeah, I went there in nineteen hundred and seven, spent a week in Norfolk. Stopped at the Algonquin Hotel. A dollar a night and, oh, a room like that cost you about 35,40 dollars a night now.

E: That was a nice place then.

B: Oh, a nice place. But that’s all been changed now, I think it’s called the Robert Lee

Hotel. It’s built up around there. The architecture of the building, it doesn’t have the appearance it had, the last time I was in Norfolk than when I was there in 19 – 7.

E: What did you see at that exposition?

B: Well, they had quite an exhibit there. The Southern Railroad had an exhibit there. Norfolk-Western had one, I remember that they built a tower out of blocks of coal. That thing went up in the air, I reckon, about 40, 50 feet up in the air.

E: A tire?

B: A tower,

E: Oh, a tower.

B: That, to represent a lighthouse–built out of solid rocks of coal mined for that purpose to build it. That was quite a feat there to build those, “Course they had to cement those blocks together, some of them eight, ten feet long, at least 4 or 5 feet thickness, That was built up right straight up. Built that to represent a lighthouse.

E: Was that something that you could go inside?

B: No, I think that was built up solid. I don’t remember goin’ inside of it, but I remember going in several buildings there. The Miller Brother’s show was there. They took over from Cody–William Cody.

E: Annie Oakley and all those?

B: Yeah, Annie Oakley. Annie Oakley was in the wreck over there just north of Linwood. The ole Linwood Station. Buffalo Bill, they called him. But Miller Brothers took that over. Buffalo Bill lost all his best horses in that wreck at Linwood, Happened in nineteen hundred and three, to the best of my recollection.

E: So that was before you were working for the railroad?

B: Yeah, before I was workin’ the railroad. People woke up the next morning – elephants and giraffes, different animals walkin’ around in the farms there. They didn’t know what had happened, direct head-in collision. The engineer had orders to stay at Lexington, there was two show trains pass. Well, the first train pass and he pulled out. Reckon he thought that was the last section. And had a head-in collision. Killed all of Buffalo Bill’s horses and Buffalo Bill had a .44 about that long — headed out lookin’ for that engineer that disobeyed his orders. He was gonna kill him. But that engineer walked all the way from Linwood back to Spencer. (After?) the wreck he wasn’t injured. I guess he…. They had those oil lights, you couldn’t see more than 30 or 40 feet in front of you in those old oil lights. He escaped injury. He might have got bruised up jumpin’ off. Annie Oakley, she was in a sleeping car and the train, they had these converted sleeping cars in the show train and, uh, she had dark hair and she woke up the next morning, daylight, and her hair done turned grey.

E: Really!

B: Overnight. I guess the experience –very traumatic experience I assume – that wreck and all the commotion, everything involved with the wreck and ya had the dying horses dead and hollerin’ and animals squealin’ and goin’ on. I guess it was a very ghastly experience. Caused the hair to turn white.

E: Did you get on out to the site of the wreck, did you ever go look at it?

B: No, I didn’t go. I didn’t have a way of gettin’ over there, I saw an engine going over- they wouldn’t let me get on–carrying some of the officials over there, I was just a boy then in knee britches.

E: Everybody pretty excited about that wreck here in Spencer?

B: Oh yes, caused quite a lot of excitement. Wel,l I guess it broke up Buffalo Bill’s Circus they had and that’s why those Miller Brothers took over and they had the concession there in the Jamestown Exposition. 

B: Well, I think the story of the organization of the Southern Railroad is very exciting. Samuel Spencer organized it in eighteen hundred and ninety-four. And he got that line from Washington to Orange and Orange to Alexander and then the Virginia-Middlin’ Railroad and then they got the control of the Richmond-Danville Railroad which ran from Richmond to Danville, then they acquired from the State of North Carolina from Danville to Greensboro. They were offering it, but they went into bankruptcy. Then they operated the line from Goldsboro to Charlotte. And they had the shops at Burlington. That’s where my father was employed. He went to work there in eighteen hundred and eighty.

E: Your father worked for the Railroad also?

B: Yeah, Richmond-Danville Railroad. Then they moved the shops from Burlington to Spencer in eighteen hundred and ninety-six. The old buildings were completed in October, eighteen hundred and ninety-six, And we came here in February, eighteen ninety-seven, We moved to East Spencer, We lived on Boxcar Row for, oh, up till springtime,

E: What was Boxcar Row?

B: That was the two large two-story houses and a string of five-room houses, and it was stretched out like a freight train, we called it Boxcar Row. Those four, or five room houses were built pretty close together, on fifty-foot lots. But they all caught on fire one night and that’s before we had the fire protection. Burnt the whole thing up. But my father got acquainted with Dr. Whitehead and think he had received an injury and Dr. Whitehead was a competent doctor and had treated him, and he told him he had bought a farm, where Spencer is now, and they had a farm-house there.  He’d be glad to rent it to him. And so he rented this house, I think, for about five dollars a month. It was a log house. It was, uh, it had clapboard siding on the side of the house, and it had a lean-to built to it. That wasn’t built out of logs; that was just built out of siding.

E: So you lived there too?

B: Yeah, we lived there, until they began to build houses in Spencer.

E: Maybe we’d better start off from the beginning of that story of reorganization.

B: Yeah, well it was organized by Samuel Spencer. He got a lot of short line railroads. He brought them in on the line. The entrance on the main line from Washington to Atlanta, made up of various segments, different railroads. Part of it was the North Carolina Railroad, from Greensboro to Charlotte. From Charlotte to Atlanta was the Piedmont-Airline Railroad.

E: The Piedmont what?

B: The Piedmont-Airline. That’s the reason they called it the airline there, called it the airline junction there at Charlotte. Then they got control of a line from Charlotte to Augusta. That was the Charlotte–C,C & A. Charlotte, Caluga), and Augusta Railroad.

E: Was Mr. Spencer just a real businessman or did he…

B: No, he was a civil engineer, a graduate of Georgia University. And during the Civil War he was in the Georgia Cavalry. After the war he went back to college and finished his course in civil engineer, and he got connected with J.P. Morgan and big financiers. And he got control of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, and he brought that in under the Southern. The ET,V, & G went from Knoxville to Atlanta and then from Knoxville to Morristown, Tennessee–Bristol Tennessee.

E: When did he start building Spencer? The Spencer Shops?

B: Well that was started in Eighteen hundred and ninety-six. They were looking for a central point between Washington and Atlanta and they decided they got a line, the North Carolina Middlin Railroad runs from Charlotte to Winston-Salem, and then from Winston-Salem to Greensboro, and Greensboro to Danville. But they put the shops in a central line. But the Hendersons in Rowan County, they had a lot of political influence and that’s the reason they put in Salisbury–or close to Salisbury. They thought it would mean a whole lot to Rowan County. They bought the land, they bought a farm there where the shop is now, they bought It from a colored man named Poteat.

E: Petite?

B: P-O-T-E-A-T. And, uh, I guess that they bought it for a song. Then the Georgia Land Company is a Southern Railroad subsidiary, they bought up a lot of the land around the shops from the Henderson estate. The Hendersons have a great, well the Hendersons, well there’s one of them I think he’s dead though, the one that used to be at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he’s a special there.

E: Is that a Henderson that Hendersonville is named after?

B: No, that’s a different set of Hendersons.

E: Well, where were you living when they started building the shops?

B: We were living in Burlington. And they moved the shops from Burlington to Spencer. And they opened it up in 1896. And the terminal was from Danville to Charlotte on the Richmond-Danville Railroad, and they changed the terminal from Spencer to Monroe, Virginia. From Monroe to Alexandria, VA… South of here they extended from Charlotte to Greenville, S.C. There used to be another division in there from Charlotte to Central South Carolina. That give ’em a direct line… Then he got control of the railroads from East Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, to Atlanta, to Knoxville. From Knoxville to Bristol (?). Then they got control of the Memphis and Charleston RR, runs from Memphis and Charleston. Comes in from Memphis in the Chattanooga, course it connects from the E,T,V & G and on into Asheville, from Asheville on into Columbia and then on all the way into Charleston. And that give him the line, got the C,N, & I,P railroad. That’s one that runs from the city of Cincinnati. That’s the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas-Pacific Railroad. The city of Cincinnati only got the line from Cincinnati to Chattanooga. They got passing (?) trains running from Cincinnati to Charleston, S.C. and Cincinnati to Goldsboro, N.C.

(I).: When you were working for the RR’s, did you get a chance to ride the trains?

B: Oh yes. I did most always travel by train.

E: Where would you usually go?

B: Oh, go to different places, had friends at each station. We had a sleeping car run from Charlotte to Norfolk. Come home, pretty tired out on a Friday afternoon, I’d say, “Honey, let’s go to the beach tonight”, “I can go, all I have to do is throw in an extra dress in my bag and I’ll be ready to go”. We’d have supper and go down to the RR station, get on a car going to Norfolk. Go to bed, and I would take the upper berth and give her the lower berth, and wake up the next morning, and say “Good morning”, and we’d be in Norfolk, and we’d go out to Virginia Beach on Saturday and Sunday and leave out of Norfolk Sunday night, getting in town to go to work Monday morning.

E: That’s nice having that free ride.

B: Well, all it cost me was my Pullman fare. And we had a Pullman car from Salisbury to Asheville. Then we had a Pullman car from Richmond into Goldsboro.

E: Did you ever go out to Hot Springs?

(B)I Hot Springs, Arkansas?

E: No, Hot Springs, N.C.

B: Oh, I been through Hot Springs on the train, then I been through there in the car. I never did stop there though. Used to be a very popular resort. Looks like it’s gone by the wayside for some reason.

E: Yeah, I was up there this past summer

B: They say there’s good water there. The water’s warm when it comes out of the ground there, isn’t it?

E: Well, the springs are closed up now.

B: Wonder why that is.

E: I don’t know. I hear its politics. But it’s hard to say.

B: That’s on the main line of the Southern Railroad between Asheville and Knoxville.

E: Let’s get back to the jobs you had working for the RR. Before we were talking about being a call boy first…

B: Call boy, then I was promoted to Night Clerk, then in Nineteen-hundred and nine, I was promoted to Daylight Clerk. That paid $5 a month more.

E: What sort of things did you have to do for your job? What were your duties?

B: Well, as roundhouse clerk, I was keeping records of the locomotives, and uh, record of general office work. Write requisitions for material. Then, uh, I worked that till 1922.

E: That was about ten years or so?

B: Yeah, I worked from 19-9 till 1922 in the roundhouse, then I went to the boiler inspection bureau. I had charge of the boiler inspection of all steam locomotives. And we had to make a report to the government when those locomotives, each one had to be inspected. My responsibility was to see that that engine was inspected on the date it was due. Like on the first, or the twelfth of the month or the fifteenth, or whatever day it was due. If it wasn’t inspected on that day, I was supposed to notify the superior officer, and he would order that engine out of service to be brought in for inspection. We had to make a monthly inspection and we had to make a quarterly inspection of it, and then they had to make a yearly inspection of it, and have to review all the flues every four years, and every five years had to remove all the— and the jackets of the locomotives and make exterior inspections of what was covered up. And I had to keep those records, keep those dates up. That was one of the Federal laws, when that boiler inspection went into effect. It was designed to curtail explosions and, uh, accidents to employees, and uh, certain safety standards it proscribed. And had to live up to the law that governed those each part of the locomotive. I had to ask this man did he make his part of the work and he’d have to swear under oath, he did the work to the best of his knowledge and belief. Couldn’t shirk his work. If he did they would prosecute him and prosecute him for perjury, for swearing he did when he didn’t. As far as I know, all the time that I worked there, from 1922 to 1939, I can’t recall ever having had an accident or anybody ever being injured as result of an improper inspection…. They had to make an obligation that they had done the work properly. I believe they were truthful men, and they wouldn’t swear to a lie unless they had done it. They were very conscientious. They want to do the right thing. 

E: That’s good

B: As far as I know we never had any serious prior to that time. Have these boiler explosions–the gauge-cocks get stopped up, the waterglass be defective. The engineer couldn’t tell what the water level he had. It might be out of water and that crown sheeting get hot and he’d pull his injector on it, and have that cold water running in on that hot crown sheet, bound for something to give, you see. And his gauge cock may be stopped up and he couldn’t tell, test his gauge cock and he’d see water coming out and he’s supposed to

put that injector on to keep that crown sheet covered with cold water all the time. Course that crown sheet had to be hot to generate steam to operate your locomotive.

E: Crown sheet, did you say?

B: Crown. C-R-O-W-N. That’s over the firebox. The firebox is huge. Fire coal in, get that temperature going, smoke and things go out through the boiler chute, then through the front and come out through the smokestack. The crown sheet that was supposed to be covered with water all the time. If you didn’t, you’d put cold water on it and you’d blow that crown sheet down, and kill everybody on the locomotive or everybody around there,

E: Did that ever happen?

B: Oh yes. When I was on this job, they had one on the Washington Division, killed several people. Found out they didn’t fill out the work, you see. 

E: So, you were keeping books and stuff.

B: Oh yeah, I had to keep, at that time, they’d write out a form, put one of them in the cab, and give me a copy of it for my records, and I’d re-copy that and I’d send one to the Boiler Inspection Bureau of the Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington. The top copy of it.

E: Did they already have the forms?

B: Oh yeah, they printed the forms. Each item had to be answered yes or no. Safe or unsafe. Pumping valves on a locomotive. They’re pretty important, you know. You’ve got to know what you’re doing to inspect those pump valves–go off at a certain pressure. If you don’t know what you’re doing there, you’d better not fool with it. For the inspection, you get up under the engine there and you look up under there and see if anything’s wrong. Stay bolts, if you find one of them leaking, you’re supposed to take that stay bolt out. That’s connecting the inner sheets you see–the outer sheet and the inner sheet. If the stay bolt began to leak

or something, you’ve got to take that stay bolt out.

E: Were you living at home when you started working for the railroad?

B: Yeah, I lived with my parents when I started.

E: When did you move out?

B: Well, I got married in 1918, moved out then, started housekeeping for myself.

E: When you were living at home, did you give your parents part of your paycheck?

B: Oh yes, sure. I had four brothers younger than I was, and two sisters.

E: All younger than you?

B: All younger than I was.

E: You had to help.

B: Had to contribute… ‘course I wasn’t making so much, but a little money in those days would go a long ways. I’d give my check to my mother, you know, I was making $25 a month, it got to where I was making $40 a month, that was the time I went to the Jamestown Exposition, thought I was a millionaire too, ha ha. Then I got the daylight job, that paid $50 a month, that’s & $600 a year.

E: Was that a lot of money back then?

(B); Oh yeah, it was a lot of money back then, the most a man worked was for $50 a month. Then, uh, 1939, I left the Boiler Inspection Bureau and went to the Car Shop, chief clerk for the general car foreman, much higher salary than what I was making at the Boiler Inspection Bureau, several dollars more a day than for 8 hours work.

E: Was that more or less?

B: 90¢ an hour. Oh yeah, that was the highest rate we had, 90¢ an hour

E: You were making more than the actual people who were working on the repairs?

B: Yeah, they were making 85, about 80 and 85¢ an hour. Car man was making 78¢ an hour when I went there in 1939. I worked in there till 1957, when I retired in 1957. But I was making 90¢ an hour… thought I was a millionaire. Never made any money before that time, ‘cause it took about all of it to live, but I paid my home, you know, and I was making about 150 dollars a month.

E: What kinds of, what was your normal daily routine when you first started working for the RR as a call boy? What time did you have to get up?

B: Oh, I had to go to work at 7 o’clock at night. Had to get up at 6 o’clock in the afternoon.

That daylight sleeping, takes,  uh, doesn’t do you as much good as, 10 hours wouldn’t do you as much good as 5 hours nighttime sleeping. Have to sleep all day. Go to bed as soon as you get home, get off at 7 in the morning, eat a breakfast, go to bed about 8, and get up at about 6 in the afternoon, go to work at 7.

E: You’d walk to work?

B: Oh yeah, walked to work, walked home. There wasn’t any telephones, no electric lights, had to carry a lantern to call the engine crews.

E: Did you ride a horse at all on your job, or just walking?

B: Just walking, all night long. Walk to the caller office, “Got another crew, & want you to get” “Go to so and so’s”. Get directions where to call the engineer and where to call the fireman. If we’d there’s two of us, take one section of town and the other the other sections.

B: Yeah, when I first went to work for the RR, we had some engines then in service that had been used during the Civil War. But all those are gone now. I always liked those old..

E: What happens to engines after they stop being used?

B: Oh, they sell them as scrap. WW I we sold a lot of 16, and 17 inch cylinder engines. They’d been stored at the shop for a long time. We sold Japan, I remember the old men over there said, “Boys you’d better mind now what you’re doing,  the Japanese will be shooting those engines back to you,” which they did, you know, during WWII, shooting them back to us, during WWII. Salvage was pretty good. You could buy, the price there was about a cent, cent and a half a pound for steel. But you could buy scrap glass for 5 or 6 cents a pound. You know what they’re selling for today?

E: A lot more than that.

B: Two dollars and a half a pound. We had a lot of wooden coaches on the RR, they were built during the Victorian period. They had a lot of embellishments with fancy brass and oil lights and baggage racks.

E: Did they have any of those still riding the rails when you were with them?

B: Oh yeah. Open they called them. I remember when I was just a child, they said the Vestibule was coming through. That was a train from Greensboro to Goldsboro. I’d go down, we lived just two blocks from the RR. Go down and see the Vestibule come by–it was the pride at that time. All the cars were open platform cars, but the Vestibule cars ran closed, like they are today. You never see an open platform car. The last time they’d been out in the South here was in WW I. I don’t think there was any in service during WWII. Now there was some in service in 1933, in Chicago. I went to Chicago in 1933 to see the World’s Fair, 1933, and I talked with one of the trainmen on the Big Four RR, he said that we use any kind of equipment we can get ‘cause so many people are going to the fair. The car I was riding in was an open-air car, open platform.

E: That means it didn’t have a roof or anything?

B: Oh yeah, it had a roof on it, but uh, just a platform when you walk off, the roof’s like this see on the car, the roof’d be standing out that far, then there’s just platform there, nothing to keep you from falling out. When you cross between the cars, the first sad soldier in the Civil war was killed. He was on the West Point Railroad, between Richmond and West Point, Virginia, he was on a train, started from one  coach  to another, it was an open end cars. He fell and the train ran over the fella down on the track and the train ran over him. That was the first confederate soldier that was killed, according to the records.

E: Wasn’t even in battle, huh?

B: Oh no, it was dangerous though, those cars was light, you know, and they’re rocking too, you know,…dangerous to go between them. Don’t close up. There wasn’t any doors, just opened up, you see. Those platform cars, they have them things run up from the station, the platform, you don’t even have to go down any steps, just walk right off the inside of the car right on the platform on the railroad. Didn’t have a ramp.

E: When you started & working for the railroads then, what kinds of people were riding the railroad’s? Was it rich people? Or anybody?

B: Well, people had to have money to ride the railroad. It was unusual

E: What did it cost you?

B: Oh, I think it was, round about 2¢ a mile, yet on the other hand, they had special rates they advertise them, you know. You get some old railroad advertisements, you know, go to California, you know, for less than $50, get several to go out there, you know, offering those rates. Some of those Canadian railroad’s were still making that offer, up here, a few years back. They a had, what  you call, immigration cars. People come from Europe they want to immigrate, so they had on the side of the cars, “immigration car”. They hauled long distances, 25 or $30 for a thousand miles. Used to go from here to Washington for about 2½¢, 3¢ a mile. Now it’s about 332 miles which would be about 6,7 dollars. Now its $25 dollars to ride the same service from Washington to Salisbury. There were farmers, well to do farmers, merchants and traveling salesmen. a lot of them used the railroads, ‘cause that was before they had the highways, you know, they had to ship the goods.

E: Did you ever have much contact with the people?

B: The passengers? I didn’t personally come in contact with them. But you go to the railroad station, they’d have a telegraph operator there, and they’d have an agent there, and oh, they ship a lot of car loads of stuff from there. If they have a car say, going from Greensboro to Raleigh, they’d load that stuff and peg-legged out (?) you see. Stopped at Elon College, Burlington, Graham, Haw River, Hillsborough, Durham… that car finally gets to Raleigh, there wouldn’t be anything after Raleigh, but of course, it would pick up stuff going in that direction. The train was changed to Seaboard Air Line, go to Richmond. That’s where you used to go to Richmond out of Raleigh. I was 6th N.C. Regiment, that was the regiment I was connected with. The original regiment train there at the old company shops at Burlington. Course, it was called “company shops” at that time, and uh Colonel Fish is buried right up here, old Lutheran Cemetery, right this side of the station at Salisbury. Just got a little small marker there. There’s a larger monument there for his daughter but his marker’s small, just a little bit larger than your machine there.

Luther Ellis Burch (B. June 5, 1889) – Part 2

Call Boy, Night Clerk, Boiler Inspector, and General Car Foreman

Interviewed by Daniel Ellison on October 18, 1981 

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Burch: That was before we moved to spencer, we moved here from Burlington. The shops were at Burlington, and after Samuel Spencer was elected head of the Southern Railroad, he wanted to put the shops in the center of the line between Washington and Atlanta. And they were going to put it over there in Mocksville, North Carolina, but uh, the Hendersons owned all this real estate, still own some of it, all this belonged – called the Henderson Woods all through here, almost to the river down there, a fellow Silers owned it, the rest of the way. And, uh, they had a lot of political influence and went to Raleigh to persuade them to put it in Salisbury. Course they want to put it out of town, you know, … and they bought a farm from a colored man named Partee and through a real estate deal, they got somebody else to buy it from him, and they sold it to the Southern Railroad to build the shops. They first started out with just 4 buildings. They were sheet steel, the building had steel frames and sheet steel, less than a quarter of an inch thick. That was a carpenter shop, and a blacksmith shop, and the erecting shop. There is where they called the back shop where they overhauled engines, then the roundhouse.

Ellison: You said they bought the land from a Black man?

B: Yes, he was a fellow by the name of Partee.

E: Were there a lot of colored people around here? 

B: No he just owned that farm out there where the shops are now. He owned parts of the land of course they had to buy it on the railroad you know. you couldn’t buy it away from the railroad you know. but southern knew that but they didn’t have many cars on the trains in those days. they didn’t have much space yard space. the yard was very small. then later on the trains began to grow much larger, and locomotives had become much larger. that’s why they had to make that larger building over there where that museum is. i think all those other buildings have been torn down. 

E: Yea most of em have been torn down. 

B: I think the power plant is still there. Those other buildings have been torn down. 

E: Do you remember any railroad accidents?

B; Oh yeah. We used to have a lot of railroad accidents. Cars were made of wood, and they had a collision, you didn’t have much of a chance if you were a passenger on a train. I remember one in particular –what they call the football special. It left Charlotte going to Richmond. The Carolina -Virginia game was being played in Richmond.

E: About what year is this, do you think?

B: 1916. Night before Thanksgiving they had a lot of wooden Pullman cars on there, place for them to sleep during the nights ,you know, because you couldn’t get to Richmond till the next morning. And young Mike Squadron he was a football player, he got injured on that wreck. Number 38 run into the rail. It was a long train, I reckon it had about 16 or 20 cars, and the railroad was stuck up in the lower east end of this bridge there. The 38, the flagman didn’t get back, or something, and he come around there at a pretty good speed there about the ice plant, where the ice plant was. And just beyond there, where the other train was standing, it run into the rear of it and killed several people it was all those red collars we called em demolished them 12 people on there were killed. Mike Squadron got enough settlement out of the Southern Railroad company to complete his law course at the University of North Carolina they had just started that you see. I think he had had trouble getting money for it.

E: So he owes his career to Southern Railroad in a way. 

B: Yea! He was governor of North Carolina which cost the railroad a lot of money. About the biggest wreck was William Cody – Buffalo Bill’s Wreck they called it, over at Linwood, N.C the  freight train was over there in  the siding at lexington and he  saw  a  lot of em sections of this circus train there was two sections of this circus train, about 20 cars each, about a 40 car train – they had to split it into two trains; and the first section went by, and he was in the side track at Lexington, so he pulled out, and he met the second section right there, about where the old station was at Linwood. And he killed all of Buffalo Bill’s best horses, killed several people on the train. And all the cars were made of wood and they were practically demolished. This, uh, let me think of her name, Annie Oakley… she was a crack-shot, you know, and, uh, she was in one of the old Pullman cars, had been converted into show cars for sleeping purposes. And her hair turned from, I don’t know whether she was a blond or a brunette, but overnight, next morning her hair was turned white. The experience she had in that wreck. Buffalo Bill, they say, he was walking around there with a 45 in his hand, looking for the engineer. But he jumped off and wasn’t hurt. He walked all the way from Linwood to Spencer, he had a 45 colt in his hand, and he was looking for him, he was going to kill him because killed all of his best horses that time of year caused the southern railroad to start goin bankrupt. Cause they had so much law suits, and they quit hauling circus trains after that, for around 30 years they couldn’t haul any more circus trains, 

E: That’s interesting

B:  I’m sure, financially the situation was serious, right after that wreck occurred you find out you were going bankrupt.

E:  Did people talk about it very much?

B: Oh yes, that’s all they would talk about. The people over around Linwood, they woke up next morning, there was elephants walking around in the yards and on the farms and giraffes — some of them had never had seen a giraffe before. They were walking around there looking for something to eat, after daylight come, this happened at night, you know, about midnight. The whole country was covered with elephants, giraffes

E: That must have been wild

B: Yeah!

E: Were people nervous about going onto trains, like some people are nervous about flying today?

B: Yeah. A lot of people were kind’ve scared to get on a train “Oh, you’re taking your life in your own hands if you get on that train” course later on they got safer cars, proper signals, but still yet they have wrecks. I heard about one way out west last week. a head on collision everybody wondered why it happened, they say it’s foolproof couldn’t help but happen. I remember southern had some head on collisions, traffic signals and everything else it got much safer. they don’t have as many as they had in the olden days, steam locomotives a lot of smoke. I remember when they had the wood burners. If you got really fresh wood, the southern railroad got control of the Tennessee Yadkin Valley Railroad from mount airy to Sanford NC and Coast Line got it from Sanford to Wilmington, all that old Tennessee Yadkin valley railroad and all the engines burned wood. They sent them all to spencer shops to be converted to coal burning, to coal burners instead of wood burners. you had that big diamond section you saw old pictures of em with big diamond sections on there and all those sacks out there for a long time but then they scrapped them because they didn’t have a use for them.

E: What was the town like with all those steam locomotives?

B: Oh, a lot of smoke here, there were a lot of people comin in down here and see all that smoke comin out, a big fire was somewhere out there. At the roundhouse there, they had the engines steamed up ready to go and a lot of smoke coming out. And they had the power plant that furnished your power – first time I ever saw electric light was — they had gas lights in Salisbury when we moved here and then converted them to electricity. Southern give the town there a light on the corner there, where the buildings been torn down. They give one light there, you know, and that came from the power plant itself. and that stood there for a long time before we ever had street lamps. And got the power from them, they generated the power. 

E: Did you live in Spencer or…?

B: Yeah, we moved here from Burlington, and uh, the shop opened up in October the first, 1896, and we moved here, the early part of February in 1897. We moved to East Spencer – that’s where all the houses were and all the stores were. It was called Southern City, then, it wasn’t called East Spencer. It was called Southern City.

E: Did the railroad ever cause any fires?

B: The railroad? Yeah, they had fires there. They had a fire there in the storehouse one time, they had one there in the roundhouse, one time

E: Was it because…

B: They rebuilt the roundhouse, they built that out of concrete.

E: And did the smoke coming out of the locomotive cause any fires?

B: Well you see all that smoke that soot came out of there and get a little fire started and all the smoke and it would combust with material, we would get to it and it went up like it was gasoline, it got so hot, on those steel drivers, with all the accumulation about 2 or 3 inches deep. The smoke, cinders, and combustible coal most of it come out of the smoke stack. you would walk around the railroad and you would find coal you could use. you would have a little coal sprinkle on top of your head back in those days. it was commin out through the smoke stack. and it had been consumed through the fire box you see, and you were workin the engine pretty hard a good amount would come out the smoke stack. I remember a fella was down on the North Carolina Railroad one time and a fella came by and the smoke was just blowin out, he ran a train on the New York Central Railroad, oh you wouldn’t see that on the New York Central Railroad they wouldn’t allow you to use smoke like that you had to conserve that smoke and keep the fire going when people were firing and burning normally when you took over there, it would consume the smoke that was goin out there. and that’s why you were losing your fuel that way. 

E: So if you have a lot of smoke coming out does that mean you don’t have a good fire

B: Yes yes, as for firing they claim that if a man’s a good fireman, he can fire that engine without making too much white smoke. Some didn’t know how to do it, there is a little art to it. you see. and when you get to shoveling that coal in the firebox, that fire box heats it up you see, and you were losing out of the smoke stack the very best part of your coal was coming out ya smoke stack. 

E: Did people who worked on the railroad have any, did they bring their own tools to the job at all did they have any special things that they brought good luck charms or anything like that? 

B: I don’t know any 

E: You don’t know of any in particular? 

B: well some of em had superstition and a lot of everybody I reckon, with sittin on the line you know, 

E: But there weren’t any superstitions that you know that had to deal specifically with the railroad, 

B: Yeah they had some there I’m trying to think of some of em, like black cat cross the tracks you know, I’ve heard some men say “ yea comin into work,” that’s when we had electric lights in town and saw a back cat run out so I had to go around four blocks to wait and avoid bad luck. Had to make a detour to prevent that black cat from crossing his path. He wasn’t takin any chances. 

E: I don’t blame him. Must better than taking a chance. 

B:  And one fella said that right after they had called him, he ran into a snake on his path from his house to the road and he couldn’t get by him every time he would move the snake would move. That’s the tale he told cause he went back to sleep and tried to make that excuse that he couldn’t get by that snake! it was the snake in his path, he would make a move to get around him and that was the reason he was late reporting for duty, delayed the train. 

E:  Do you think he was telling the truth?

B: Oh yeah I think he was cause he said I have a letter I want you to type for me. and he got a letter from the superintendent as to why he didn’t blow the whistle. I said alright and I typed it out for him, “I says what do you want me to type?” and he says well punch in this, “I didn’t blow the whistle for the crossing because he reached up to blow the whistle and whistle cord was broke.” course that would happen back then, he was pretty smart you know, at that time if the whistle cord was broke and that’s the reason for why he didn’t blow the whistle for the road crossing, see he was riding the train you know and he checked on em. and the explanation got, it could happen you understand, I said “how did you think of that so quick?” he says “oh you gotta think quick.” 

E: accidents like that happened pretty often then? 

B: Oh yes they did they didn’t have inspection laws like they do now. i worked with the law inspection bureau for about 13 years and I had monthly reports on boilers and yearly reports on all the steam locomotives, I handled over 500 of them. It was a hassle to keep up with all of them. all those 500 locomotives you have the inspection every 30 days, and the inspector would come around and see the engine if it was out of date he finds the railroad company and put a heavy fine on them for violating the law. and if you were running any engine that hadn’t been inspected in 30 days had done passed, they allowed you 5 days grace, they would fine you when overdue. And I had to be responsible for that, I had to find what engine that was. And if it wasn’t inspected the next day I had to search and find where that engine was and stop it from running and get it into the terminal to be inspected. And I almost got one lost, it was supposed to be in the shop but it didn’t get there. It was in Asheville, and I asked “where is the report on this engine?” and he said it was it was last week he said oh it was still down, we will get it down there today to be inspected, but it was ten days past due then. And fine the Railroad a considerable amount of money

E: People used to put it off

B: But fortunately as far as I know, I’d have them sign, they’d have a man sworn in, they wouldn’t fine him for his duties, they would fine him for perjury. And prosecute him for perjury because he swore to the best of his knowledge that he had performed the work in accordance with the law and as far as I know nobody was ever injured or caught not following the principles of the law. The boiler inspection law. Had to sue, clean those gauges out it got stopped up you see. When the water got on the gauge they would have to be cleaned out so the engineer could see it, but as far as I know nobody ever, as long as I was on the job nobody ever was scarred or had a personal injury as a result of violation of the law, it was a pretty good group of men and they were honest men, and they wouldn’t swear to something unless they had done it, they were anxious to preform their duties. They didn’t want to get in trouble cause it would be, you would go to court, and you got perjury on your hands, you would have a time getting lawyers to defend you on that, because that’s their living you see. And you go perjuring yourself, they don’t have nothing to do with you.

E: You’re talking about making these reports on a monthly basis, a quarterly and all that, I just wondering about the impression that time is real important to railroad men, they always got their watches

 B: Oh yes it is a very important factor in railroading. ‘Course they have watch inspection laws, you know. You have to inspect your watches every quarter, see if they’re still functioning, get too much dirt in it or something they would have to be cleaned out. Have to take them to an authorized watch inspector for the Southern Railroad. They don’t pay much attention to that now. Most everybody wears a wristwatch. Formerly, it had to be a pocket watch, and to set that watch, you had to open the case in front and pull a little lever up and then your – if you’d lost some time or and then close it back up. Something like that. Now they got these wristwatches, don’t hear much about the watch inspections, or I didn’t. I guess they still have it.

E: Did you all have to set your watches every day to a master clock somewhere?

B; Yeah, I had to, when I worked in the roundhouse. We had a Western Union clock that regulates itself twice in 24 hours – 12 o’clock daytime and 12 o’clock at night. if It lost any time, if it gained any time it dropped back, if it lost any time, it moved up. It operated by electricity.

E; Why do you think they paid so much attention to it?

B: Well, you didn’t have any communications. Now, you got communication, you can be in Williamsburg, you can talk to a man on a train a hundred miles away from Williamsburg. Now, you can talk to him like that. They had to be there on the dot, in other words. But if I can’t make it there, I got to meet this train at certain, certain time, at certain station. If he can’t make it, he’s got to go on a sidetrack somewhere else. Now, you can communicate better. I know a man working on the Charlotte Division told me, he got in a conversation with another fella, they were on the same track. “How did you get on this track?” “Oh I got orders for it” with accompanying times so one is in the pass track so they could pass one another. The dispatcher, he didn’t know it. Hadn’t, if they reported to him, you see. Consequently, hadn’t had that communication like they have now. Then if you got on a 200 car train, you’re two miles away from the engineer on those long trains. guess you’ve noticed those long trains they have. Some of them have 150; 200 cars

E: I usually notice them when I’m in a car stopped at an intersection, going by.

B: Up at the western crossing you see them a lot, but they cross pretty quickly. A man in Asheville, he can tell that man leaving Spencer, he communicates with him by wireless, you see.

E: Did people who worked for the railroad, were they pretty punctual outside of the railroad? In their leisure time were they punctual?

B: Oh yes

E: Did everybody get given a watch?

B: Everybody had to have a standard watch. You had to buy your own watch. Now, they all have wristwatches. I guess the standard watch, it got to be a 17 or 21 jewel. They had a B.W. Raymond jewel, 21 jewel. “Well, what do you got?” “I got a B.W. Raymond 21 jewel” you know, “Well, mine’s a 17 jewel”. I think 17 or 18 would pass, but you’d rather have a 20 or 21 jewel. Some of them took as high as 24 jewel. They were very expensive.

E: Which was the best watch?

B: All of them are bound to be good. The B.W. Raymond and the Elgin, and I think there’s a watch made at Langston, Pa., and Waltham has a good watch. I still got my old Waltham watch. I had to have one as a call boy, you see, my daddy bought it for me. That was just a 15 jewel, but it’s still running, though, the last time I saw it. I don’t know where it is now.

E: Were they gold watches?

B: Yeah, most of them gold. Some gold filled, gold. They was pretty. $40 for a filled watchcases. Watch was considered a pretty good price, back in those days. Maybe I was making 50 dollars a month, and I had a $40 watch. I think mine cost around $15. I was making $25 a month and I paid $15.

B: That’s a lot of money for a watch.

B: Oh yeah. More than half of my salary was for my watch. But I had to have it, cause I picked out my watch and I had to call this fellow at a certain time, and I’d look at my watch and I ‘d put on a little more steam, you know, a little more steam to get there in time, call him on time so he wouldn’t delay the train

E: Did you ever mess up as a call boy and oversleep yourself, and not get to somebody?

B: Yeah, I went to sleep on night, but they hadn’t fired me, you know. I was supposed to call a man at a certain time, and I just dropped off to sleep, It might’ve been the day after pay-day, something like that

E: After hitting all those bars?

B: Yeah, I’d wake up, the train was in the yard, Augusta Special. The train was in the yard, I would go all the way the engine hadn’t come around, they called “Where’s the engine for this train, the train’s in the yard?” Well, I went and called him. I told him what he was up against, I went to sleep, the engineer and fireman both were asleep in the room they were staying in then, the train went to Columbia, they got up and snatch on their britches and then was running and got over there. It did delay them about 15 minutes. It was in about 5 o’clock in the morning, didn’t nobody find out about it in time. President Roosevelt was on the rear of that train. Theodore Roosevelt., 

E: What was he doing on the train?

B: He was going south somewhere, going to Florida I think. That was when the Southern was operating a train between New York and Florida, including Washington. Branch off at Charlotte and went to Columbia and on to Jacksonville.

E: Do you remember any particularly fancy Pullman cars, or like an engineer’s cab that he’s got all fixed up?

B: Yeah, we had an engineer. His name was Tom Reese, he used to have his, he and his fireman come over there, they used to leave about 11 o’clock in the morning, they’d

come over there about 8 o’clock in the morning, go to work polishing the brass on it. He had brass on the front of the engine, and on the sides, and on the inside of the cab, he even had a clock on the inside of the cab

E. Was that pretty usual that people had all those things?

B: Very unusual…most people give it to him. I know he had a clock on there, and he kept that brass on those brass gauges shined up, you know. It was very pretty. And he had It decorated with  brass flag holders. He kept his engine pretty clean.

E; Was riding on the train back then a pretty fancy experience? Did people get all dressed up to go on a train trip?

B: Oh yes…. Back then when they had those wooden sleeping cars, I slept in those. I remember down in New Orleans one time, I was going to Jackson, Mississippi, got on the train… the wooden trains there is all walnut, all walnut on the inside. Oh that thing was pretty. All the brass was shined up, and oil lights, and they were shined up.

E: What kind of beds did they have?

B: Well, they were upper berth and lower berth, just about the size of this bed chair, you see. And they had a curtain across there in the front of it, and you go to bed and pull your curtains… and they even let somebody else on the aisle opposite you. They were very, very nice. Those days, of course it’s different now. The old, old gentlemen, you see them go in the Pullman car in the morning to wash up, and it was made of – it wasn’t stainless steel,- it was nickel-plate fixtures, washbasin was nickel-plated. And they’d finish shaving or washing their face, and they’d take, the Pullman company furnished them towels. they’d give you a towel, and they’d take that towel after they dried their face and they’d wash all the water away from them, just as dry as a chicken bone, after they’d finish it, and then leave it there for the next man, The man before me left it good and clean for me. They had an unwritten law, and they all of them did it. But now you go in there, and there’s some of them slobber on it, and spill water on the floor. But you never saw any water spilled on the floor. They was, what you might say, gentlemen

E: So that wouldn’t be the porter who would come in and clean up, that would be each person cleaned up after themselves?

B: Yeah, well if the porter had it would take all his time looking after the washroom. He had to get other people up you see, and make up the bunks after the people got out. And he would do it then, he would come and clean it up, but you would have to call him, se he’d be making up some beds or something. They had 12 uppers and 12 lowers and they had a drawing room at one end of the car. It cost you more to ride in the drawing room. They had the upper and lower and a couch to sleep on, could fit three people in there, or you could put four of them in there if you get them all two to a berth. I’ve slept in two to a berth, I’ve slept in two to a berth its awful uncomfortable, its not too comfortable sleeping with two in the berth. That was, we made a pass of Pullman cars down at the shop, and we would get a half rate on Pullman so Pullman was a few dollars from Salisbury to Norfolk, and you’d get for a dollar, I’d take the upper and I’d sleep in the upper and put my wife in the lower. I would get a section you see for two dollars, and both of us would be comfortable. I would come home and have a hard week you know, and be tired out, and this goes to Norfolk tonight. Say “aw I can get ready” say “all I gotta do is tell me next address” and the bagman said I could go. Catch the 9 o’clock train they had Pullman car for Norfolk, go to bed leaving Salisbury, wake up the next morning in Norfolk.

E: Did you travel pretty much?

B: I did practically all my traveling by train. When I was in the 6th North Carolina Regiment we did a lot of traveling by train. We rode the Louisville Nashville Railroad, we rode that fine train they have, they call it the Georgia, between Atlanta and Chicago, that was a nice train. It had roomette cars, it had the old style upper and lower berth, chair cars, two dining cars. Well one of them was a tavern car so they had one dining car and one tavern car. Go back in the tavern car and get any kind of drink you wanted. Sandwich or something like that. Its gonna make it very inconvenient, you see, they’re going to automatic on the train. I guess they will have one attendant, pretty expensive, gotta have first cook, second cook, third cook.

E: Well what they’re gonna do is have microwave ovens and just have it all frozen in advance so they don’t have to have any cooks.

B: They had that when they had 35 and 36 going back, had a bowl of soup that I think was about 75 cents, about two tablespoons full.

E: Ok, before this side of the tape runs out, I was wondering if you could go over how you first got interested in getting a job working for the railroad. What made you try to do that?

B: Well, like you say, people working, they had money. People that wasn’t working didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any money. My father had a large family, and by the time he fed that big family, he didn’t have any money to give us, I decided that a job would come open at the shop they had a job for a call boy. They wanted somebody to call crews, I don’t know how I got the job, I was 15 then. And I worked on that about 2 years and I got promoted. That paid $25 a month, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. And the night clerk, he died, and they promoted me from call boy to night clerk. That was $40 dollars a month, twelve hours a night, 7 till 7, and seven days a week, $40 a month.

E: So you started to work for the railroad because the money was good? 

B: Oh yeah. You had money. The fellow that wasn’t working, he didn’t have any money, because the farm there didn’t have any money. working on the farm, he had to pay him off in sweet potatoes, or 5 gallons of molasses, something like that… I wanted some money. In those days, $25 was a whole lot of money back in those days. Of course I paid my mother for my board and I helped my father feed the other children.

E: What was your father doing, when you got your job at the railroad?

B: He was working at the shop, car repair, in the shop.

E: How long did he work for the railroad?

B: Let’s see, he went to work in 1880, and he died in 1926.

John Samuel Upton (Born October 3, 1891)


Interviewed by Daniel Ellison, February 23, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Dan Ellison: When did you start working for the railroad?

John Upton: I started work for the railroad in 1911, then I went on my time and served my time, and the war came on – World War I came along – I didn’t have to serve but about 3 years because they wanted machinists and I had prepared myself, had a year at the old A&M College, for a year, on mechanical engineering, and I knew how to draw to make blueprints.

E: So, during the war you worked as a machinist?

U: Yeah, after I served three years, yeah, they promoted me to a machinist. But before that I had done all the drawing and things like that for anything broke or something needed a blueprint of it. I had made pretty good money, but then that starting in, serving my time, it was only a dollar a day, that was 12 ½ cents an hour.

E: What exactly were you doing?

U: Serving my time?

E: Uh huh.

U: Well, I was on a lathe, shaper, planer, and any other machine that come up. We went all the way around, just step up, you know, from bolt lathes, made bolts. First thing I done, what they called facing nuts. That is, I had to split those nuts to make them make a lock nut, they didn’t have lock nuts back then. They split the nut to make a lock nut, they didn’t have lock nuts back then. Then the lock nuts come along, then the castellated nut came along, then there wasn’t too much of that facing going on.

E: What were they using the nuts for?

U: Bolts, everything had a bolt. They bolted together everything, then, you know. They didn’t have welding at all…

E: So the old railroad was made just using bolts?

U: Yeah, they come on in, since I been here, you see, we went from saturated steam to superheated steam, all that, from Stevenson valve gear to Walschaerts valve gear, going on from lead Southern valve gear that they developed themselves, the Southern Railroad, but they didn’t prove too good. It throwed the train on a curve, it throwed the valve out, it didn’t work as well as the Walschaerts… so they finally changed all the engines that had the Stevenson, Southern valve gear… converted all into the Walschaerts gear. After the war, well they come in on this changing all this stuff. We converted all the engines from saturated steam to superheated steam… it’s hotter steam, we get more power out of it. It was a dry steam and made the engine perform better.

E: Were you working on part of the conversion for these?

U: Yeah, well, I started back there during my apprenticeship, I started in with what they called facing nuts, and then making bolts, and then from that, on to planer, planing stuff, and then into repairing injectors and lubricators, and air pumps.

E: How long would you stay at each particular…

U: About three months, each job, go on from changing from one subject to another.

E: What did you end up as?

U: Well I ended up in what they called the back shop doing general work – repairing…

E: How did you first start off getting your job for the railroad?

U: Well, I wanted to be a mechanic. I took a course at, I went to college, to A&M College for a year, and of course I ran out of money, and then I decided, well, I would serve my time as an apprentice, you see… well, I went to Pittsburgh and took examinations along with Westinghouse, and they paid such low wages and they had such a stack of applications, they said they couldn’t put me on for a year or more. Well, I came back home and come down here and got a job at the shop, and they put me on my time pretty soon, and I finished my time in 1917, and they promoted me, rather, in 1917, I had served about three years.

E: Going on time means becoming an apprentice?

U: Yeah, serving apprenticeship to become a machinist.

E: And how long did that take?

U: It was a four-year term, they worked you four years, and they start you in at 12 ½ cents an hour, then there is 14, 16, and the last year you made 18 cents an hour.

E: Was that pretty good pay back then?

U: Well, that was fair. That was about what they were paying helpers… the mechanics was only making 38 cents an hour, the machinists was only making 38, then it got up to 40 and 50 cents an hour. Before the war come on I was making about 50 cents an hour, and then after the war come on, I was raised up with the Navy yard, they got our wages up to 85 cents an hour… that was pretty good wages back then, a little above the average.

E: Did you have one boss when you were an apprentice?

U: No, they went from one department to the other, you had a different boss… They give a course, the International Correspondent’s Course for 30 minutes a day, we went to school. They had a school building out to the lower end of the shop there, and they had an instructor to instruct the boys.

E: What sort of things did they teach?

U: Well, they taught arithmetic, and different subjects like that, and drawing. Seemed to be drawing was the practical thing. I went on and finished mechanical engineering course with the ICS. That was I got the job of doing all the drawing. And finally that faded out a while, and then it come back, they got short of mechanics and machinists so they put the apprenticeship back in force, and had the ICS furnished an instructor and they paid half, the Railroad paid part of it, the instructor’s fee, and the boys went to school… all the apprenticeship boys, they went to school, but nobody else.

E: Did you all have to go to school?

U: Yes, that was a rule of the company. When you went on your time, was to go to school, they forced you to go to school, that was 30 minutes a day, they had the school building there, and they furnished everything for the boys to study, and there was an instructor there with them.

E: Did you have to study much outside of the class?

U: Got down there to just give them a week’s instruction a month, and then finally they just quit taking apprentices all together. They quit taking on apprentices after the second world war. The diesel was coming along, and they sent some of the boys into the diesel plants to learn something about the diesel.

E: Why do you think they stopped taking apprentices?

U: Well they had more mechanics than they needed, could get them you see… stopped training them. when I started there was so few mechanics, they had to have a school to teach them to do railroad work.

E: What sort of relationship did you have with the instructor? With the person that you were apprenticed to?

U: Oh wonderful, I always got along just fine and most of, a few of the boys would blow up, going off and throw something at us.

E: Who was the person that would fire somebody? It would be?

U: Well, the foreman you were working for would suggest it and the master mechanic would have to take it serious.

E: So, it had to go to the master mechanic…

U: They had to take it up to the master mechanic before they would discharge you… but that was seldom done, mighty few happened that way.

E: How many apprentices were working with one person?

U: Oh when I started there was about twenty apprentices. Of course now, after I was promoted an apprentice worked for me three months, well I had from one to two apprentice working with me, I show ‘em how to lay out work, and they’d work with me for three months. Three, maybe less than three, two, four months, and then they go on up to something else, some other department. They all had to go all the way through different departments, you know, make repair valves, make little steam valves, steam gauges, all that, lubricators, stay on the lubricator job for about three months. Had to learn how to repair a lubricator and how to operate. Same way with injectors. Injectors back then didn’t have these water, modern water pumps after until way up in 1927. Before that they just had an injector, two injectors on an engine, on a boiler at a time.

E: What were the injectors doing?

U: Put the water in the boiler. They was a pump to put the water in the boiler. And then they got the engines all developed, you know, they got these water pumps come in, heat the water before they put it in the boiler, and it just automatically fed the water into the boiler, hot, really hot.

E: So, the boiler didn’t have to work as hard?

U: Well, the boiler didn’t have to work as hard and the boiler could produce more steam and faster.  Had the stoker, they go the stokers on the engine and hand firing went out of business. That used to fire, when I come in on the railroad, they used to do the firing by hand, a shovel. They got the automatic fire door. All they had to do was pop the foot on the pedal and the door and you’d throw in a scoop of coal. And then you got away from that when you got the stoker, but they maintained those doors, but stoker took care of that.

E: Did it more automatically.

U: Oh, it was automatic, fireman sat on the box and just turn a valve, all he had to do if he wanted more coal, he turn a valve

E: Did you ever actually work on the railroad, or just in the shops?

U: Just in the shops. I never did any outside work, road work. I was inside all the time.

E: What was it like working in the, did you work in the back shop when you started out, or?

U: I worked in the erecting shop, and the machine shop – my job required me in both places. In the machine shop, I’d be laying out work to go to the machines, then I’d go to the back shop or erecting shop, where I’d be boring cylinders and boring valves and putting in valve bushings and putting in cylinder bushings.

E: Did you have your own bench to work at?

U: Oh yes, I had a table, a big cast iron table with lines on it to square things up by, you know… we got a machine that would mill a rod out, and I had to make a template just like the rod, and put this template right on the machine, and I had a gauge to run around the template and guided the tool rod… it would duplicate it

E: Did you work with other people while doing this? Or was it all individual work?

U: My work, I done what the boss told me to, or more I had my own work on, I had the job, you see of laying out, and anything came up to be laid out, why that was my job.

E: You didn’t work with another person that helped do the layout?

U: No, only an apprentice. I had an apprentice to help me and a helper. I had a helper all the time because when I went in the back shop to bore a cylinder, I had my helper there to help me set up the machine. There was a portable boring bar that would put in the cylinder that would 

rebore it, that would get around it. The same way with a valve, we had a portable valve boring machine that would set up in a valve and I would bore the valve out, over size you see. Then I would have to fill it up with older billowings and packing rings to get the valve up to suit the chamber that I’d bored.

E: While you were working, curious, did you talk much with other people, did you have the chance to talk?

U: Oh, yes. I was allowed to talk anytime I wanted to.

E: And people were talking to each other throughout?

U: Oh, yes.

E: What did you talk about?

U: Well, it would usually be work, you know be, you couldn’t just stand and talk and blab.

E: While you were working you weren’t talking about different things?

U: No.

E: Just about your work?

U: Just the work. And that would talk your mind enough. You had to know what you were doing and had to be out on the job to do it.

E: Did you control your own time? Or did you have breaks?

U: No, we just checked in and, no we didn’t have no breaks.

E: Didn’t have any breaks? No coffee break or anything like that?

U: No, we didn’t have no breaks… no coffee breaks. If they catched you smoking a cigarette, they fired you. If they’d catch you eating during work hours, they’d fire you…

E: How long were the work hours?

U: Eight hours.

E: Even when you started off?

U: Yeah, we just got to eight hours when I, they were working nine hours just before, but after I come to work here, they got the eight-hour system, and eight hour shifts you see. I always worked first shift, because I worked in the machine shift and my lay out work, second and third shift was roundhouse work.

E: What time did first shift start?

U: 7:15 in the morning. And off at 4. We had 45 minutes for lunch.

E: Did you all work weekends at all?

U: Oh, we worked six days a week. And the force roundhouse worked seven days and never stopped. That second and third shift in the roundhouse. In the shop we only worked day shift.

E: You said you had a 45-minute lunch break?

U: I usually come home for lunch, but most of them carried their lunch. Then I finally got so I carried my lunch most of the time – they cut it down to 30 minutes, I carried my lunch regular.

E: Was there a lunchroom where you all go to eat?

U: No, we had to come out to town to a café or YMCA. The YMCA wanted to run the lunch counter. 

E: If you brought your own lunch, though, where would you eat it?

U: Just on the job, sit down on the machine or on a bench, or anywhere.

E: Did you usually eat lunch with the same people?

U: Oh yes, a group of us, a bunch, talk and local conversation about the local events and so forth… when the whistle blew, why they’s back on the job, and there wasn’t no talking after that, unless it was to ask a question about what you was doing.

E: Did you feel that you should have breaks?

U: Well we finally, after the Second World War, they allowed us to have a Coca-Cola, drink a Coca-Cola and eat a lunch, an in between meal lunch if you had brought it with you, they didn’t have anything to buy. When they put in the Coca-Cola machine you could buy a Coca-Cola anytime – just put the money in the machine. But that was right as the steam was going out, after World War II.

E: Did the Blacks have particular types of jobs that they had and the whites have…?

U: They done grease wiping and box packing, packing boxes with grease. And then they stayed to themselves most of the time. Especially when lunch time, why they went to their places to eat. They had a place for toilets were separate – hotels and places like that had separate toilets for them. but it was always no trouble at all with the Blacks.

E: Never any fights between folks?

U: No. If the colored fought, they fought the colored man. But that didn’t happen in the shops. After you got home maybe you’d get home and fight – among his own people – but it didn’t happen in the shop.

E: Were there ever any fights, even among whites among themselves? Like a guy accusing someone else of taking his tools or something?

U: Well, (laughs), I’ll have to tell you a story about myself. When I was first come on started my time, see they give you a hammer and a chisel and a monkey wrench and a little drawer in the work bench to keep it in and you lock it up. Well, this boy he kept borrowing my hammer and he wouldn’t bring it back. So, I needed my hammer one day and I went over and asked him for it, and he said he didn’t have it and I told him he was a liar. Now I grabbed him by the throat, you know, I shut his wind off (laughs). Boss saw, saw a hold of him, you know. I was getting a little old wrench out of my pocket and was gonna knock his head down (laughs) he comes over and wants to know what’s the trouble. Tell him the boys got my hammer and he won’t give it, bring it back. He borrowed my hammer, and he won’t bring it back. The boss say, “you got his hammer?’ says, “I can get it”. (laughs) He went and brought that hammer back. I never had any trouble with tools after that. But I think they just wanted to bother me cause I was a boy and now and want to make it kind of hard for me.

E: The guy who took your hammer, was he an apprentice too?

U: Yeah, he was an apprentice, about my size, ‘cause he’d been on his time a little longer than I. I just started on mine, you see. Him and another boy, they were teaming up against me, I think. But that straightened that thing out (laughs).

E: They stayed away from you after that.

U: They didn’t borrow any tools after that; they borrowed one – they brought it back (laughs). Yeah, oh, they some little cuss fights, you know, some fellows fall out, you know, but they had to be very careful about that. If it got to the boss, the boss’s fire you.

E: Were there always a lot of people trying to get jobs working in the shops?

U: Oh, yes. There’s always somebody looking for a job, get in the shop.

E: So, if they fired you, they’d have no problem in replacing a person?

U: No.

E: There’d always be someone wanting?

U: Oh yeah, they always had applications for machinists, and there’s always laborers. Always plenty of them around if you got throwed out. Well they had laborers to do might now everything in the way of hauling material and like that. We used to put, driving tire on the, used to build a fire in uh – stack your tire up, you know, and build a wood fire around it and heat it, heat the tire and then had a ginner, a cart-like, with a hook on it and a big handle back here on it. They could hook that top onto the tire and raise it up and take it in and put in on the wheel and then they shim the wheel, you see, and when it cools, why it was tight on… that’s the way they put the tire on. And then I later days they got a torch – a blow torch – why they had a hoop to put around the tire to heat the tire and they’d, uh, heat that tire right on the wheel and then slip shims under it to tighten it, you know.

E: What were the tires made out of?
U: Tires? That was steel. The very best steel. The tires was made out of steel, you know, with a flange on them. They’d put it on. The wheel got worn, the flange wore out, why they put in on the lather and turn the tire down to put the flange back on it. The regular flange on it.

E: How often did tires have to get changed?

U: Oh well, when they’d wear, they’d wear indefinitely, but if the engine was out of trains or something it would cause the flange to cup up and they’d have to shift the boxes to throw it back in line so it wouldn’t cut the flange. The flange gets sharp after a certain thickness, got down to as much as 7/8 of an inch, ¾, 7/8 thick, why it was condemned, against the law to run it.

E: What would happen?

U: Have to take the tire off or take the wheels out from under the engine and turn the wheels down, turn the tire down.

E: I mean, what would it do to have the flange that size, what sort of things would it ruin? Was it unsafe?

U: Yeah, unsafe, its liable to ride a rail, jump a track and they’d have to take it into the drop put and drop that wheel and have it, have all the wheels turned down same size.

E: Did you ever do any of the work on those wheels?

U: Oh, uh, I never turned… yes, I worked a little bit while I was on my time, turned a few tires out on the regular tire lathe, but not very much. Most that was carried in to one department, one man or two men done that, run the lathe, the wheel lathe – so that was carried to the wheel lathe and that man done the turning of the wheels. He worked that job.

E: When you were working in the shops, after you’d served your time, was it always, was every day pretty much different?

U: Yeah, there’s something coming up every day different. Like, uh, I’d have to make a sketch for a boiler patch or make a sketch – a machine break down and you want a sketch of the part – I’d make the sketch to order the part, you see, and, uh, different things like that come up every day, and laying off cylinders. I’d lay off a pair of cylinders that day and tomorrow it’d be a frame… and the next day it’d be a valve motion. There’s something carried on all the time. Had to lay it off. The machine man had work, you see, done those, had to work the rods, finish the rods, do the finish work on them. Take a rod, why they’d first take a rough piece of steel that had been forged in the blacksmith shop, forged out a rod in the rough, then they’d go to the planer or miller and mill down the right thickness and then they’d come to me and I laid it off to for the miller to mill it around outside, sideways, the edge.

E: Don’t know exactly what you mean by “laid off”.

U: Well, I had to take the rods, some had templates, I had templates made and I laid it on a scribed it off by that. Some parts I’d just make a template and transfer it and then a lot of stuff it had to be just done with a pair of dividers and scale and lay it off just like you were drawing a blueprint. Center dot it around for the man to work to. That was, I’d be doing that today, and then tomorrow I’d come up it’d be a cylinder to bore – I’d have to bore the cylinder and sometimes he’d bore it out, enlarge it for a bushing. Put in a new bushing, bush it back to a standard size. Always had bushing, put bushing in and the cylinders would start. Used to be that the little engines why they, the cylinder – we bored the cylinder and everything the size that it wanted out of metal – used the same metal. But after they got these big engines why they bush them right off – bored the cylinder right out certain size, then put the bushing in to start off with. And then that bushing wear out of round, we’d have to put in a boring bar and enlarge it, you see, and then put a bigger piston in and bigger rings.

E: You always keep on reusing the same materials and just fix them all the time?

U: Oh, yes. Course you’d have to have a new piston, that’d be a new – kept them machines up and a new bull ring.

E: Did they make the new pistons in the machine shop here?

U: Oh yeah. Made the piston and the piston head in the machine shop. Increased the size of the piston head, if I bored it out, it was a 27” cylinder and I bored it out 27 ¼, then they made a larger piston head to put on and larger rings. The rings would usually run about 3, maybe ¾ inch larger than the bore of the cylinder and then you cut a piece out of it – out of the ring, I cut a piece out to allow it to come together, you know, cut out enough to make it just fit in the cylinder and then that way, why – it fit the cylinder – compression.

E: Did you do that sort of thing – was that one of the things that y’all did a lot, working on the cylinders…

U: That was done either in the round house or back shop. Always putting new pistons, new rings, everything in the engine when it went out to turn it out to, when it had a general overhaul.

E: Would you end up usually doing things, would it be like one thing per day – one thing might take up your whole day?

U: Oh, maybe two days, three days.

E: So, most of the time was it like that or most of the time did you work on a few different things in a day?

U: Oh yes, sometime I’d work several different things like face a valve-seat, then put the valve on there and spot the valve down, and then you’d have to line the pressure-plate for the valve cover. We got out’a that one when we went into super-heater and put piston-valves on all the engines.

E: When did you all, did you say it was after the war when you converted everything to super heaters?

U: Yeah after World War I, we converted all the saturated engines to piston engines, super heated.

E: Did y’all have unions and stuff?

U: Oh yeah, we had machinists’ organization and boilermakers and pipefitters, sheet metal workers and carmen.

E: Were they around when you started working?

U: Oh, we had, then we had a chairman of each – chairman of the machinists’ organization and he worked in the shop and he settled any differences in placing men and like that.

E: So, you were a member of the union then?

U: Oh yes, when you served two years on your time, you had to join the union.

E: So which union were you a member of?

U: I was a member of the machinists’ union. I’ve got my retirement card, pool car – 50 years.

E: What sort of things did the union do for you all, what particular kinds of…

U: Well, kept the men lined up and got, uh, say a man was being mistreated or something another, well the chairman would take it up with the boss, try and straighten it out any trouble like that.

E: Do you remember any particular incidents of that kind of thing?

U: Well, uh, that happened right often. You got some fellow that got drunk and ought’a lay out a day or two, naturally why he come in and the boss have to send him back home and the chairman would take it up and get him back on the job.

E: Was a person allowed to have any sick leave at all?

U: No sick leaves. If you was sick, you was off, that was all.

E: Were you fired?

U: No, you had to stay at home and get well before you come back. Had to be well when you come back. and we had a regular doctor, if you got hurt, mashed a finger anything like that, why they’d send you over to the doctor’s office and dress it and take care of it for you.

E: Were there a lot of accidents at the shops?

U: Oh, not too many.

E: What was the most common kind of accident?

U: Oh, just mash a finger, mash a toe or something like that was most common. We had a few accidents like, well a fellow got his arm cut off. That was kind’ve…

E: How did that happen?

U: Well, he was a painter and he was painting a driving wheel and he had his arm between the valve motion. And the fellow up in the cab reversed the engine and caught it. Just sheared his arm off. So…

E: Did he live?

U: Yes, he did, and he continued to work with one arm painting – came back on the same job and worked on the same job. Just one arm though. And this fellow in the car department, some fellow over there cut both his legs off and, uh, he got well and got him some artificial legs and worked for years. Came back and worked for years, just with artificial legs.

E: Did people get paid some sort of compensation if they got…

U: Oh, they usually paid them a little something. A small amount, never nobody ever got anything.

E: Did the union take care of people if they got hurt like that? Take care of their family till they could get things together?

U: Usually get by with help from the neighbors and some people would take up a donation – a lot of cases that way. Most cases, a party could take care of himself if he took care of himself before he done it.

E: What sort of things did you all do on your free time? When you weren’t working?

U: Well, we had different things. Some of them, most of them usually had a garden, you know, and they’d work the garden in the evenings.

E: Did you have a garden?

U: Oh yeah. I always had a garden.

E: What kinds of things did you have planted?

U: Oh, raised cabbage, beans, cucumbers, onions, corn, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes,

E: Everything!

U: Yeah. And most everybody had a garden back then and…

E: So, you’d come home and work in your garden for a little while.

U: Oh yes; I usually’d get off at 4 o’clock and I’d come home, rest awhile, and then get out, work in the garden. Some of the fellows run dairies on the side and take them cows and bring milk into the shop, carry it to the shop… they’d come ahead of time, you know, and bring the milk and put it in the coolers.

E: People play cards or anything?

U: Well, lunchtime, usually a couple card games going on.

E: What sort of cards, poker?

U: No, they just play 7-up or something like that

E: Gambling, or just…

U: No, just for fun. Just to pass a little time, while they was…

E: Were there, outside the bars, were there people that played baseball or…

U: Oh, we had baseball. We had a shop team. We played with the different cotton mills, you know, and we finally built a park. Up here a baseball fence, a steel fence. We started to build it. The ball club had me make a sketch of how to build a metal fence. Well they sent a man to Cincinnati with the sketch and the fellow at the company over there give him an estimate which run so high for them to build it and ship it here, why the club figured that they couldn’t afford it. So, they finally fell on a plan of making, building the fence themselves. Buy corrugated sheet metal and then a lot of second handed scrap flues, boiler flues. And they had a press over there, they could press, make an angle iron out of the flues. So we made angle irons and I agreed to lay off the stuff, so I laid off two and then the boilermakers took it over because they claimed it was their work. So, but the boilermaker chairman and master mechanic came to me and wanted to know if I’d do the laying out work and so I told them – sure I would. Volunteered. It was all done by volunteer work.

E: All done on your own time, then?

U: Yeah done on own time. But what balled the thing up was they got some of the flues made out of the flues made into angle irons and they come over during shop hours and wanted me to go over and lay out a set. Well, I went over and laid out a set and then the chairman said he didn’t want me to do that – I was doing boilermaker work. So they, boilermakers, took over making the angle irons. But they used the pieces that I detailed – used them for templates, the ones that I laid off (laughs). And then we worked on Sundays and evenings. Just a group of different fellas – machinists and boilermakers and worked so many hours putting them together.

E: How many hours did it take to get the fence all put together?

U: Oh, we got it together in about a couple of months, I reckon, set up. Then they moved it out of the park down here on the regular ballpark… the school… moved the fence down there ‘cause they didn’t want the fence in the center of town. Didn’t want the ballpark up there. We built even the bleachers – grandstand. ‘Course we got material from the shop, lumber.

E: Did they let you all just have the material?

U: Yeah, they sold it to us. They paid a little something for it.

E: What happened to the fence? Is it still around?

U: No. They finally moved it down here and set up, and they finally just – people, different ones or another just tore it down, carried it off till it got in such bad shape that they finally tore it all down and put up a cement fence – wall – all around it for the fence.

E: Were you on the baseball team also or did you just…

U: No, I never did play ball.

E: Did most people watch the games?

U: Yeah, that was a big time. I remember one thing. A fella, he chewed tobacco and he just took a mouthful of tobacco all the time and every day when there’s a ball game, a bunch of them get together and as soon as they get off of work 3:15 in the roundhouse, you see he worked in the roundhouse, he’d go to the ballpark. Well, he got up on the top seat, you know, and (laughs) he was chewin’ that tobaccer and it was running down his lips and he had a mouthful and he just spit back over. There happened to be a fellow down there with a (laughs) white seersucker suit on and a white (laughs) sailor hat, and he just splattered him all over (laughs) and this fella he noticed what he’d done and he just slipped down into another seat and just kept on hollering for the ballgame, hollering the team, you know. And the fella down there he was just a cussin’. He didn’t know who spit (laughs). It was, uh, the fellows used to tell that on the guys in a comical way.

E: That poor guy probably never got those stains out.

E: Lot of people that worked for the Railroad, were they Masons or Shriners?

U: Right many was. Engineers and lot like that was Masons and back in those days they’d have an emblem put on their bell and different things ‘cause the company used to assign the engine to that run, you know, and he called it his engine, you see, and he didn’t like to go out unless he had his engine. And if there had to be something done to it, sometimes he’d lay off till the engines ready to put back on his run.

E: Each got to – were there differences they could notice about the engines? Did they run differently?

U: Well, you just got used to it, you know, and I guess they had it tuned up just like they wanted it to. And the whistle – the whistle tuned to suit them and everything like that. Have the cab all – a lot of brass work and everything – done in brass, you know. All the valve handles and things were copper, bronze. Oil can – bronze oil can.

E: They had some nice things then.

U: Oh yeah – the head of the boiler there all polished up and fixed up just like he want it, you know. He spent the money himself – he’d buy the brass and stuff. ‘Course the shop men would do the work… once had a fellow spend $500 back then for brass and stuff to put on it. And they allowed ‘em to put their name on the cab in gold letters. But they finally – after they got these big engines and things, they took the engine away from ‘em and he’d run whatever they sent out there for him.

E: Must have made some of them kind’ve unhappy after they did all that work. Were there any particular engines that you remember that were done up super nice?

U: Yeah, take your 1270. That was old man Cazarra’s engine. Engineer Cazarra.

E: How was that – Cazar?

U: Cazarra. He had his engine all fixed up and old fellow Hunter he had his engine all dolled up – his name on the cab E. S. Hunter. Well, just a lot of those fellows. Old fellow Fargus – and most all the engineers had their name on the cab and had the extra work done in the cab.

E: Did you have your bench in the shop fixed up in any special way?

U: No, nothing. Only just nice bench and I had my, I had a cabinet there to keep my blueprints in. of course, I had an office up there where we kept the blueprints, all of them. but sometimes I’d keep some that I used every day – I had a little cabinet down there right at my table. The table was 6” thick and about 5 x 12. It was set up on wooden benches so I could work on it, lay any kind of thing on it ‘cause it was strong enough to hold it.

E: Six inches thick is pretty thick.

U: Yeah, put a rod on there, a drive motion – all this stuff was heavy. Lay a rod on there and guides. Went onto putting these multiple guides on us. Done away with the H crossheads. That was just one guide, but it was grooved out and what they called it a multiple guide. It was made in two pieces but it was put together, bolted together and I done all that. I laid them off and laid the holes off and bolted them together and tapped the holes for the oil box and a place for putting oil from the lubricator. Then they had the lubricator – they put the lubricators – automatic lubricators on in back of the valve head. I made all the brackets for that and that was connected with the valve motion and the oil for the cylinder, the valve, everything fed from that one lubricator.

E: So after you finished your apprenticeship you pretty much stayed at the same job then?

U: Yeah.

E: For the whole time?

U: Oh yeah. Except when they laid off everybody and I had to change shifts. I had to go to the roundhouse. I worked in the roundhouse for about 4 or 5 years on the third shift ‘cause they just cut the force down and, you know, and didn’t stand for anything except the third shift at the roundhouse.

E: Were you doing basically the same things?

U: Oh, that was general work down there. Worked rods, everything. Anything come up I had to do that on the third shift. If I had to couple an engine up – that is drove our tests and all – I had to do that.

E: Then, after those 4 or 5 years of working in the roundhouse, you came back to the same job you had?

U: Yeah, as soon as the shop opened up again, they moved me back to the back shop ‘cause my job, you see, when the reestablished it, why I had to come back to it. That was a seniority rule.

E: Did, um…

U: I didn’t have to. I could have you see. But the rules were – 

E: You had it if you wanted to.

U: Mmhmm. So, naturally, I wanted my job back. It’s difficult to stay that third shift. I didn’t like that nights’ work.

E: What would you have to do in order to get a raise? Was it just time?

U: Well, through the organization was the only way we ever got any raise.

E: The machinists’ union?

U: Yeah. They took it up with the management and – back when I first got here, if they got two cents why that would be just great. We went from 38 to 40 and 42. Then we finally got 50 cents an hour. Then after the First War came along, we finally got up to 85 on the count of the Navy yard, you see, we bucked for them to give us the same money they was paying for the Navy yard. So, we finally got a raise up a little then. And then the war was over they wanted to cut us back and they did cut us back to 70 cents and we had a strike but we had to go back then for 72 cents, I think it was, we went back to work.

E: How about during the depression, what happened then?

U: Well, men was working short time. Men was just laid off, they just worked a few men. There wasn’t but a few men working. I stood to work, by working third shift, you see.

E: So you were able to keep your job?

U: Yeah, but then as soon as it was over, about 5 years, why I come back, I come back to my regular job in the machine shop.

E: By the depression, had you already paid for your house?

U: Yeah, we got it paid for just before.

E: I guess you were pretty lucky then.

U: Yeah. But some of ‘em lost and had to pay double for their house. but my wife and I – she was kind’ve strict about being in debt (laughs). She didn’t like that idea.

E: I don’t blame her.

U: So, we just done without things that we would’ve had, had it been for being in debt, you know. So, we finally got it paid off. Got it paid off in…

E: During the depression… what was the town like then?

U: Well, there was fellas just off everywhere just hunting for jobs. They’d work anywhere. Machinists’d work for a dollar a day. I know a couple of machinists worked on this little house down here, the second one from the corner. A banker up here built the house then and a couple of machinists worked there, built it out of cement blocks and a couple of machinists worked there for a dollar a day, building that house. and a lot of us, a couple building in Salisbury were put up by the Wagoner Construction Company. And a foreman worked over there for a dollar a day on that for that contractor.

E: Did people, were people expecting the depression at all here?

U: Well, uh, yes. It couldn’t be anything else because so many people coming, going. Take us here. My wife she – hoboes come by ask for a sandwich, she always tried to give him one of some kind, if it was nothing but lard with sugar on it. Sometimes she said there would be one at the front door and one at the back door… she always fixes ‘em something, you know, and people learn the house to come to get a sandwich.

E: How many kids did y’all have?

U: One boy, and then her sister died – my wife’s sister died and she had three boys and the youngest boy came and lived with us through high school. And then he had to go into service after he got through school. A short time after he got through school. He had to go into the service. He was overseas. He was in the motorcycle division or something like that. He worked, he lived, lives in Florida now. He lives on the opposite side of where Jack, my son lives in Lakeland near the West coast and David Ledbetter, my nephew, he lives on the East coast just opposite Cocoa on Merritt Island. He worked for Patrick Air Base for a long time – for thirty years. He’s retired now. He retired about a year ago.

E: What year were you born in?

U: What year was I born in?

E: Yeah

U: 1891. October the third, 1891. I’m 88 years old.

E: How did you end up working for the railroad?

U: 50 years

E: You never got tired of it?

U: No. See, I had a break there, went to Washington, worked in the mechanical engineering office for about 5 ½ years. I went up there in 1927.

E: Why did you do that?

U: Well, they was buying these new engines and they wanted a man from the shop to come…

E: So, you were still working for the railroad?

U: Yeah, I was still working for Southern. It was the Southern mechanical engineering office. And I worked up there and helped with writing the specifications for the new engines. The big 48 hundred, McCarters, and Pacific type engines, Mountain type engines, and, uh, they’d always consult me about appliances – water pump and stokers and which was the better.

Tape Ends

Thomas Frederick Henry (1896-1981)

Fireman and Engineer

Interviewed by Daniel Ellison, April 18, 1980

Click to Read Full Interview Transcript

Thomas Henry: I come to the railroad in 1916. I was 19 years old, ‘course I had to tell ‘em I was 21 in order to get a job. But it took me a year or two to make up my mind that I was gonna stay on the railroad ‘cause it was so hard. If I hadn’t of been a strong man, I couldn’t have made it.

Dan Ellison Why did you want to work for the railroad in the first place?

H: Well, there’s two things that I wanted to be while I was growing up. First, I wanted to be a doctor. And then, if I couldn’t make that, I wanted to be an engineer. So, I made the engineer. I didn’t have the, I’d say willpower, to fight my way for a doctor. ‘Cause my father had 14 kids, you know, and it took a lot of money, and you didn’t have no surplus and he didn’t have anything to put me through college. I got through high school – that’s as far as I went.

E: Anyway, getting back to the railroad, what was your first job?

H: Fireman. Back in that day and time, you had to fire an engine and work seniority. Then you work your way up. As the men, the older men passed on, died or got killed or what have you, why you work your way up. I fired a locomotive for about 25 years before I ran one.

E: Did you always have your eye on being an engineer?

H: Oh yeah, sure. That’s what you’re working for, is an engineer.

E: How did you get your job? What did you have to do to get that first job?

H: I just came down here one morning and I – you don’t remember, but old Villa of Mexico came all the way into Juarez, Texas and killed 17 people back there in 1916. Well, Jack Pershing was a first lieutenant. Jack Pershing took 5,000 troops and went into Mexico, chasing Villa. Well, me and a couple of my buddies came down here to join the militia. We were going to Mexico. In the meantime, we met a friend of ours. He said “Looka here, bud, I got a job firing an engine.” Well, I always did want to railroad and so we got on a streetcar. At that time there wasn’t a hard surface piece of street in this town at that time, except for the square up yonder. It had one block each way, brick. All the rest of it was dirt. The streetcar track ran right along out here, where you turned off to Spencer. We got on the streetcar, went out to Spencer. So, uh, went over that and at that time the general roundhouse foreman was named Bob Julian. He was an old cockeyed man, couldn’t tell when he was looking at you, but he was a big stick out there then. Someone said he’s the man that’ll give you a job. So, I went in the roundhouse there. I did all the talking, of course, for the two other boys and I saw him coming. He walked with his head like this. So I walked up in front of him and I said “Mr. Julian, we want a job firing an engine on the Asheville Division”. We wanted to go on the Asheville Division – I’m glad we didn’t. and he said, “We don’t need anybody.” I said,” Why do you tell me that, every time I come down here. I just talked to a man you hired.” I said, “Now, here’s three of us and we mean to stick if you’ll give us a job a railroading.” “Well, if that’s the way you feel, go see the road foreman of engines.” He was the man that could sign us up. We all three stuck. The other two boys are dead. One of them died…

E: What were their names?

H: Vance Davis was one of them. Cancer got him. He died 3 or 4 years ago. The other one was Bob Davis. He lived right at the end of the street here and it’s been about one or two years, I don’t know which. 

E: What, uh, now when you first started, you were shoveling coal, is that it?

H: Yeah.

E: What was that job like? Just give me a kind of run down for…

H: Well, you shovel the coal, you know – ever been up on a steam engine?

E: Well, only one of these in the shop here.

H: Well, you hot your tank up with your engine, you know you go to shovel the coal, you had to lean back there against the cab and you had a shovel and, of course, we had air doors, reach back and get a shovel of coal, step on the pedal and put it in – just like that – and we had those tanks, those big tanks would hold twelve to thirteen tons of coal. We had coal chutes all along the railroad – one at Greensboro, one at Danville. And we would drive in, fill up the tank every time we’d go by, with coal. And with good coal, it wasn’t so hard firing an engine. I enjoyed firing an engine with a shovel. I really did, then. But I could really burn coal. You had to know how to burn coal to fire an engine. Now we had men here that never did learn to fire – never did learn to burn coal.

E: What did you have to do to do it right?

H: Well, you can’t overdo it, and you can’t under do it – just like firing your furnace in the basement. You go down there and load that furnace up, throw all the fire up, you don’t have any steam, but just put in enough so it’ll catch a fire and keep going all the time. Well, those engines had a strong exhaust through that firebox, you know, and as you put that coal in there, you’d put a shovel here, a shovel here, a shovel there, a shovel there, one in the corner, one in the corner, crawl up on the seat box, ride a little bit and drop down there and do the same thing over and over, then…

E: How did you learn how to do it right? Did somebody teach you, show you?

H: Well, back in that day and time you had to learn the road at your own expense – learn how to – come down here and go out with other firemen – they’d teach you how to do it. Then the, uh, stokers came along – that was the finest things in the world. The stokers would fire those engines mechanically.

E: Did you have to load the stoker, is that – with coal – is that it?

H: Oh no, you had to, you’d load the tank and the auger ran back through the middle of the tank and that drew the coal right up to the firebox and that put it in the fire.

E: So that did it all automatically.

H: Yeah, yeah. That was very good. Then come the diesel. The diesel just like – as much different to ride the diesel or the steam engine as to ride your automobile or a horse and buggy.

E: Mmmmmhmmm.

H: Now these diesels – have you ever been up on one of them?

E: Yeah.

H: Well, you know, you go up on your diesel – when they first come in, course these are older diesels, they got now they’re not built like when they first came in, we had cabs. All the passenger trains had cabs on them. But you come up out of the powerhouse, two or three stops out of the power house, and close off that door and you can carry on a conversation, an ordinary conversation, running 90 miles per hour. Everything was quiet. Up in front, everything was behind you. But these, the ones they got now, it’s all in front of you. ‘course it’s not covered up, its uncovered but…

E: Does that make it noisier, having it…

H: Yeah, it makes it noisier. The way they got it now, it doesn’t make the engine any noisier, but it’s all right there uncovered and in front of you. Those, uh, I used to go to Washington for about two or three times a year. And the president would meet with the officials and one of the vice-presidents told me that whenever the diesels came on the scene, every railroad in this country was in the red and the only thing that saved them was the diesel locomotive. The Southern Railway put in operation the first diesel engine in the world out of Cincinnati. Put it in freight service in Cincinnati.

E: What year would that have been?

H: I can’t recall what year, but do you remember the original way the, uh, diesel, who made the diesel? Dr. Diesel was a German. He built that diesel engine and he tried to sell it to the German government and the German government wouldn’t pay him what he wanted, so he got on the plane, was going across to fly to England, and he disappeared over the English Channel. ‘Course it’s known that the German government threw him overboard – keep him from selling that diesel. That’s what happened. The diesel engine doesn’t have a spark plug. It has a pump, that fuel comes out of there with a 5,000 pound pressure on top of that cylinder and that pressure is so great that when it hits air, it exhausts, it lights. They’re great engines. There’s no doubt about it.

E: Did you like running those more than the steam engines?

H: Oh yeah. Well, the steam engine was – you got a kick out of running those steam engines, but when it comes to the diesel, that’s more business. You can’t stall a diesel engine. You can overload it, and make him stand still, but those wheels will keep turning all the time. You can’t stall the engine. We had a, when they first brought those diesels in, they hooked six of them together, you can hook a hundred of them together as far as that’s concerned, and one throttle handles the whole business. Every time you hook on another diesel, you get a cord, a jump cable there with a, oh hundreds and hundreds of little electric things here. When you couple that in, that couples up to everything to that other diesel all the way through. It all works simultaneously.

E: You can get a pretty powerful engine working there then…

H: Oh yeah – six of ‘em. I left here with 250 cars – freight cars. They called me up, yardmaster said, “Fred, you got 250 cars outside”. “I don’t give a goddamn if we’ve got 500.” I told my fireman, I said, “Now when I get the slack all out of this train,” it had 8 notches, you know, you notch out one notch at a time, I said, “I’m gonna put her into 8th notch and I’m gonna leave here there uphill and downhill”. I did, and in an hour and fifteen minutes I was in Greensboro – 250 cars. But now, you take 250 cars, you got about 100 feet or more of slack in that train and if you don’t know how to control that slack, you won’t go nowhere. You go to watch that slack coming in and out – and starting a train like that you got to be very careful starting one car at a time, you know. You reach and get that throttle – bam -get back there about 50, 75 cars – you pull a draw head.

E: How did you learn to control those things?

H: Oh, it just takes time to do it, yes it does.

E: Did you learn by tiail and error, is that it or…

H: Well, that’s got a lot to do with it, yeah. Every time you make an error, you knew what you’d done wrong, so you wouldn’t have to tell the superintendent that but, ha ha ha

E: There wasn’t any kind of, uh, there wasn’t another engineer that would teach you how to do things or tell you his old tricks?

H: What?

E: There wasn’t another engineer that would teach a person…

H: No, we didn’t have anybody out there, whenever you go to be an engineer, you’d work your way up, you’d work your way – you’d ridden that left side for years and whenever you’d stand for the engineer, course you switched over to the right side. But, of course, you’d been on that engine long enough to know all the ins and outs, you know.

E: What would you have to be doing, well, let’s see, after you were, after you’ve – is it called a fireman – would that have been your first job?

H: Yeah.

E: What did you do after that?

H: Engineer.

E: You spent 25 years, you said, as a fireman, first?

H: Well, back in that day and time, yeah, but now these people are all retiring now at 60 years old. People didn’t retire back in that time, they just work till they died, or get fired for something. They got men out there now who been running the engines haven’t been out there but 4 or 5 years. I didn’t stand to fire an engine I, I , I tell these fellows uptown – I didn’t stand to fire an engine and they’re running the engine or running the train as conductor ‘cause that’s the seniority – is moving a whole lot faster. Every time an older man moves on, the man under him moves up, you know.

E: Mmmm hmmm. So back when you were starting, people were just, the old engineer would stay there…

H: Till he died – stayed there till he died. I could be running that train right now. I was running that streamline when I quit. I could be running that train right now as well as I ever run it. But after you stay there long enough to be an engineer on one of these diesels, run a passenger train, you know all the ins and outs and it’s no trouble to you at all.

E: Now you mentioned “sitting on the left side” for a couple of years before being an engineer.

H: Yeah, that’s the fireman’s side. The fireman rides on the left side, the engineer the right.

E: Well, how often, exactly, would you have to go and, if you were sitting on the left side, and actually get up and do something?

H: Well, the firemen have to get up pretty often – he stayed up 99% of the time when he was firing with a shovel – course now…

E: What was his job later when they changed to diesel engines, was there still a fireman?

H: Well, yeah. Well, now they don’t have firemen since I quit. They took the firemen off freight trains, but the government makes them carry a fireman on passenger trains. We only have one passenger train through here. We had about 8 passenger trains each way a day, when I came here. Now we got 1. An Amtrak. They really had passenger trains. That was back there before they had hard surface roads, before the airplane came around. Those hard surface roads, you know, everybody got automobiles. Well, now, I could ride on pass anywhere I’d want to, but if I got to Charlotte or Greensboro, I don’t fool with no train, I get in my automobile. Well, you know, the man that has to buy a ticket, he’ll drive his car instead of buying a ticket.

E: Mmmm hmmm.

H: But now, I understand that these, they’re talking about putting on another passenger train through here now – this gas situation.

E: Yeah, that’ll make a big difference, I think.

H: Yeah.

E: What was it like working for the railroad those 25 years that you were a fireman?

H: Well…

E: What sort of changes did you see?

H: It all depends, you can make it hard for yourself or – I liked it. I always did like the railroad. I liked every day that I worked. I enjoyed it. But if you’ve got a job you enjoy, you all right, but if you don’t, it’s hard luck.

E: Sure. What sort of hours did you have?

H: Well, back when I went with the railroad, many kinds of hours. Sometimes you’d be 16 hours on the road, you’d have to camp somewhere you wouldn’t get to the other end. You had a 18-hour law – now it’s a 12 hour law. Now after you’ve been on duty 12 hours, you’ve got to take 8 hours rest. The government put that in, but just before I came here they didn’t have the 16 hour law, and sometimes they’d be making a round trip – cause they had these little small engines and they didn’t pull much – just a handful of cars and passenger trains – that was before the double track. They’d go on the pass track, maybe have to stay there for 6 or 7 passenger trains come by. Well, there’s all the difference in the world with railroading now – even when I came here. It was a whole lot of difference when I came here than it was 10 years before that too.

E: I can imagine there’s certainly been change in the last 80 years.

H: Yes sir, no doubt about it.

E: What was the, uh, I heard that some of the engineers really used to decorate up their engines and stuff.

H: Well, you know, back years ago engineers stand for a regular job, they give him a regular and sign a regular engine to him – and that engine came in, they’d knock the fire out of it and put it in the roundhouse till they call that engineer again, then they get it ready for him to go out. Well, these passenger engineers, they had some of the prettiest engines you ever saw. They had them all brassed up and shined up, clean as a pin. They took pride in those engines. Put their name in brass letters about that long on the side of the cab.

E: Did you have a particular engineer that you worked for all that time?

H: Oh yeah, yeah. With crews, we were assigned. Each crew had an engineer and a fireman – that was a crew – and when they called that crew, they called the engineer and the fireman. Same way with the train. When they had a conductor, and he had, uh, 2 brakemen assigned to him and when they’d call that conductor, they’d call those 2 brakemen, yeah, they were regular assigned.

E: You never got a chance to decorate the inside also, did you?

H: Oh yeah.

E: Oh, you did. What sorts of things did you do?

H: I fired for an engineer for a good while in freight service. Out here at the Spencer Shops, then, when they put your engine in the shop, knowing that you’re not going out for maybe 48 hours, they had a bunch of colored boys and they cleared those engines, rubbed them down, polished the brass. Well, this man I fired for was engine 4858.

E: What was his name?

H: Chandler. A. B. Chandler. Been dead now, several years. Uh, we’d go out of here – it had a stoker on it then – we’d go out of here on that run – ‘course all you had to do was set your stoker. If you knew how to set that stoker, that’d do the business. About the first hill we’d hit, you slow down, he’d get a piece of waste and I would too and he’d take half of the boiler head and I’d take the other half and shine it and clean it all up. ‘Course you had a water hose.

{Tape Ends}

H: They had a water hose attached to those boilers. Long hoses, 15 feet long and you could take that water hose, keep your coal wetted down, keep the dust down, keep the dust all washed up on the deck of the engine. Also had a little air hose, so you could blow it dry. The mechanical department took care of all that, you know.

E: It was just you, it was just a fireman and an engineer then in the cab?

H: Yup.

E: Did you all talk much?

H: Oh yeah.

E: On your run?

H: Yeah, it was all the time. Well, they had a brakeman as a rule. For a long time, the brakeman would ride back there where he could see the train, he’d be going around all the curves, he could see both side of the train, you know. So, he rode back in that little house most of the time.

E: He would be all alone there?

H: Oh yeah, sure. And had that little house, had a window on each side, a glass door, had it steam heated – it’s nice.

E: What kinds of things did y’all talk about usually?

H: Oh anything, just like any two men talk when they get together. Mostly good-looking girls. Ha ha ha ha. 

H: Were there any, um, did you ever sing much?

H: What?

E: Did y’all sing at all, or anything like that?

H: I used to love to sing, I’d sing a whole lot. Not many of them do any singing.

E: Did you make up railroad sings or anything like that?

H: No, we didn’t.

E: Songs about the railroad?

H: We talked about the railroad, of course, but we didn’t – a lot of these boys come by here and sit here and talk with me, some of the boys been out there for 35, 40 years. We have a time reminiscing, going over the runs that we made years together, you know. Somehow or another, I dream nearly every night something about the railroad. I dreamed last night I was in the company of the vice-president – he’s been dead a good while. Have a little dream about the railroad.

E: Now you said that you went up to Washington, every now and then.

H: Yeah, I was local chairman, back in those days, for the firemen. I handled all the grievances for them, and I’d get a bunch of grievances once in a while, have to take it all the way to Washington.

E: Mmmm hmmm.

H: To get the main office to settle them, you know.

E: What sort of grievances did y’all usually have?

H: Oh, we had all kinds of grievances. Sometimes, we’d get a man fired. I’d take charge of that and to, in other words, I was a lawyer for that man just like the company’s superintendent would be the lawyer for the company, you know. I know we was trying a boy one day for being drunk and after the trial everybody went out of the office except me and the superintendent. The superintendent said, uh, “Don’t you think that fella should be fired?” I said, “Well, I’m the attorney for that man and you’re the attorney for the company, you couldn’t expect me to tell you to fire that man.” Of course, he knew that too.

E: Yeah, was drinking a big problem among railroad men?

H: It wasn’t with many men. Lots of fellas – we’d had several of them that run off the railroad completely. Uh, the man I’m telling you about now – finally ran him away because he’d get off and stay drunk 30 days, then he’d go out on the road, make a round trip and he’d be in worse condition than if he’d been half drunk. So, they finally fired him. It’s absolutely prohibited – drinking on duty. If they caught you, they could fire you for it. We call that Rule G.

E: Rule G?

H: Yeah, try you they would for Rule G – under the influence.

E: They didn’t fire many people under that rule, did they, or?

H: Not many. Didn’t have too many fired. Most of the men would take a drink, but most of them would be off duty drinking.

E: Mmmm hmmm.

H: I just mean on duty. Well, years ago, if you get in trouble drinking off duty, they’d fire you. But finally, they cut that out. Some engineer up north, they fired him for something, and he wasn’t on duty for whatever they fired him for. he carried it to court. The court ruled that the railroad had nothing to do with a man when he was off duty. So that cleared up that situation.

E: I’d agree with that. I think.

H: Yeah, I would too. I know, one of the first cases I had, they fired a boy, he was off duty and 15 miles out of town and got in trouble. I told that superintended then, I said, “That man was 15 miles out of town and marked off. Wasn’t even working – connected with the railroad at all. I contend the railroad’s got nothing to do with that.” He said, “I do too, but you know the rules.” Then later on they changed that rule.

E: What year was it that you started, uh, you know, getting some position of authority, I guess, in the union?

H: Well…

E: Did you start being active in it?

H: Yeah, sure. I was active in the lodge. We used to have the lodge meeting once a week. And we elected representation, you know, the membership did. I was local chairman. That was local. Then we had a man we called the general chairman that rules over all of the local chairmen – works with 12 or 13 of them on the Southern Railway system.

E: What year, about, was it you got the job as local chairman?

H: It must have been about ’38, I reckon it was. I was local chairman for 14 years. We have a convention every 4 years. I went to 3 conventions. I went to Denver, Colorado; stayed out there nearly 2 months; then I went to San Francisco, stayed out there nearly two months. Then I got an appointment in the grand lodge on the constitution committee for the convention in Boston. I was in the Grand Lodge in Cleveland for about 3 or 4 months.

E: Did you ever go out on strike?

H: Yeah. Went out on one strike. They called a strike, I forget what year that was, and my run, I stood first out – running a freight run then. But I wasn’t out but a few days and when we went back to work, so the superintendent and the train masters and the officials would try to operate the best way they could, but they couldn’t do much with it, you know. I know when the strike come to a close, they called me and told me to go to the Spencer Station. They’d already made up the train and the superintendent was on the engine, was gonna run it and he saw me, he said, “Boy, I sure am glad to see you, come on up here”. Ha ha ha ha.

E: Do you remember what the strike was about? What it was over?

H: No, I don’t remember. We had so many grievances, we almost striked. We had, I know I stayed in Washington 30 days or more on a committee, there were a couple hundred of us about on the committee – was about to strike the whole country. We finally got it settled. We had a – on these conventions, we had a thousand delegates. What is that? A pigeon right there? I know he eats all that bird food. Boy, when he gets down in there, he cleans that bin. I believe it’s a pigeon.

E: I think it was.

H: Yeah, we had a thousand delegates at the convention. Cost about 2 million dollars to put on a convention.

E: Really! That’s a lot of money. Did y’all, do you generally feel that the railroad, that the people who ran the railroad were good and liked their workers in general – or not?

H: What?

E: Did you get the feeling that the people that ran the railroad, in general, wanted to do the best they could for the railroad workers?

H: Oh yeah, yeah. Guess so. We had mighty good official, on the Southern Railway especially. The Southern Railway right now is the most prosperous railroad in the world. There’s no doubt about that. It’s really making money. Just spent nearly $50 million over here about 7 or 8 miles. It would pay you to go over there and through that plant sometime, if you could. They got what ya call a hump yard – everything’s computerized. Everything is pushbutton. They can switch a hundred cars in 10 or 15 minutes. Even when they bring in 100 cars with an engine behind it and they cut the cars loose, there’s a man sitting up in the tower – they know where every car is going. They got a picture here – this car’s going in that track, this car’s going in that track. If they want that engineer to move that train, to cut that car loose, he doesn’t move it, he pushes a button. They move that engine down themselves from the tower. He’s just sitting there reading the paper. They cut that car loose, it goes down a hump, and this computer, the computer knows how fast its going and it goes through the first slow up, these things like this on each side of the track that comes in on the wheel. The first place it’ll slow it up, well the computer will tell the other one whether or not to slow it up again before it gets in and couples with the train. It’s a wonderful thing to see. Ya got about 50 tracks there.

E: Sounds like it’s made things easy. 

E: What were you making when you first started for the railroad?

H: I met with the chief clerk out there in the Master Mechanic’s Office, one morning, I just received my check – at that time we was getting paid every 20th – once a month. And I had a check for $70. I showed it to him, he says, “my, my, if I could make that much money, boy, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” He was chief clerk of the Master Mechanic’s Office making $40 a month, 6 days a week. The job I come off of is now paying $3000 a month.

E: That’s good money. You all have good retirement pensions too.

H: Oh yes, yeah. I don’t worry about anything. I’ve got a good retirement. See, I get a retirement, my wife does too. I paid on that stuff for years and years. But it’s really costing those boys now. Some of them are quitting because of it. You see, every year that goes by, people are getting older and living longer. But the pension checks now that they’re sending out, there’s so many of them that the boys that’s working has got to keep that money up, you know. They pay as much again as I paid when I was paying on it. I tell these boys, “don’t quit boys, keep my checks coming”. Ha ha ha ha. See, we got it set up, with Congress, that the railroad can’t do away with that pension, our pensions at all. They got nothing to do with it. It comes through the government.

E: You’ve got things worked out pretty well.  Are there any, uh, I wonder if there are any stories or wrecks or something that people tell?

H: About what?

E: Railroad wrecks or things like that.

H: Well, I said, I’ve never had a wreck, but we’ve had some powerful wrecks since I’ve been here. I’ve seen wrecks out there on that railroad where they’ve turned over as high as 65 cars, one time.

You take a train – these freight trains, course they’re equipped ,much better now – they’ve got roller bearings where they used to have these old hot boxes that you’d have to pack ‘em all with dope, you know. Well, the roller bearings will run indefinitely. Well, these trains would be so long you’d have a hotbox back there and that’d wring a [jernal?] off – you wouldn’t even know about it till the train turned over.

E: Really!

H: I know when the stokers first came here, I was sitting out there on the YMCA porch one afternoon and a man sitting there right beside me, another fireman, I said, “There’s a man younger than me and marked up on that stoker that was going out next morning.” I said, “I’m going over there and pull the fella.” So, this fell said, “there ain’t no use” cause he’s older that men, said, “I’m gonna pull him myself”. I said, “Go ahead”. That train went out the next day, that big engine turned over at Lynchburg, killed the fireman, engineer, and brakeman.

E: Hmmm.

H: That was a big engine then. That was when the big engines first started coming out. We called them a 5000-type engine. That was one of the biggest Southern had. The trackman was working on the track and the engine went down there and hit that track where they were working – the track did like that.

E: Hmmm

H: Went over against the bank, turned the engine over, hung the engineer, fireman in there – burnt the fireman up you’d, he lived, got him to the hospital, flesh fell off his body, when he walked. And the engineer was hung onto that engine 8 hours. A man came out from that cigarette factory there with an acetylene torch, went on there and set with him till they got him cut loose. The stoker had him all jammed up again the side of the cab. He didn’t have a broken bone or nothing. He said, “I’m all right – nothing wrong with me.” He died in 5 minutes.

E: Really!

H: After they got him out from in there, they, he’d been under there 8 hours breathing that steam and as soon as fresh air hit him…

E: Hmmm

H: And that brakeman was settin’ on the head end of the head car and when the train turned over, of course, he went down and it drug him along there. They picked him up in a basket – cut him all to pieces.

E: Hmmm

H: There haven’t been many railroad men killed since I’ve been here. We lost 3 engineers one year – that was about 15 years ago. One of them went back – he had no business going back – back in the – something wrong with the train, he went back, gonna couple it up, and when he walked in between the 2 draw heads to get on the other side, that fireman moved that engine – coupled up on him, killed him.

Another one, this train was going north and the switcher was heading out from a place over there in Virginia, and threw the switch after that engineer passed that other signal back there on the clear board. He went down in there and turned that engine over. It wouldn’t have killed him – it didn’t kill the fireman or brakeman either – wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t a jumped off, but he jumped off and tried to go up a bank, but rolled back and it caught him and tore him all to pieces.

Then we had a train going east – between Greensboro and Raleigh down at Guilford – Gibsonville, just around Elon College, and the passenger train that run right ahead of this freight train and that great big old steam connection on the very end of that passenger train had dropped down – and as it went by, it come in between the switches and pulled that – cracked that track. Well, didn’t have any signals down there, this freight train come, I reckon he was running 50 or 60 miles per hour, went right into that passenger train before he knew anything about it. Burnt the engineer up and burnt the fireman up – like to burnt the brakeman up. The brakeman got well, he got married. The man who built this hospital, he dies, and she sold it and she married that brakeman here not long ago. But the engineer and fireman both burnt up. Trouble about a steam engine – it’s top heavy. And the least little thing, you know, it’ll turn over. A diesel, you can run diesel, now the diesel came out in here, I don’t know if you read about that wreck on that Amtrak.

E: Yeah – the one just a little while ago.

H: It came in there about 60 mph and the switch was wrong and went in that fast track, just went on down through the yard there after they plowed up. Ya see all the weight of a diesel is down on the track – those rollers and everything. They won’t turn over unless they up on a hill, a bank, going down a bank they might turn over. Didn’t either one of these fellas get hurt – rode that engine till it stopped.

E: When you got to be an engineer, what kind of train were you running then?

H: Running steam, running steam. Then the diesels came into the picture.

E: Do you remember your first run as an engineer?

H: Yup, just about. 48-92. I remember the man that fired for me. He just died not long ago.

E: What was his name?

H: Ramsey. Buddy Ramsey. 48-92. I had what they call, well the Blue Eagle they called it – the cotton mill special. I handled all the cotton mill stuff, and they’d come in here from Greenville, South Carolina, go to Greensboro, down by Burlington, Durham, and Raleigh, to Selma and into Norfolk. It would average 72 cars every night. I had about 72 cars that night. I used to go through that state – you see that railroad ran right through that state college down there. So, we go through the state college every time we make a run.

E: Did you prefer night rides or daytime?

H: No, I prefer day runs.

E: But you’d usually start off on the night and…

H: Well, you see, the railroads got no certain time. The passenger trains got a certain time, but the rest of them – whenever they get the trains ready.

E: Oh really.

H: Yeah.

E: Were there, well, I guess by the time you were an engineer they didn’t have call boys…

H: Oh yeah, they got call boys yet. Yeah, the call boy, if you’re leaving Spencer as a rule he’d come after you, of course, he called me by phone always.

E: Did you ever have a nickname while you worked on the railroad?

H: No, I had, uh, a couple of my buddies called me Slim, after I come on the railroad.

E: Called you Slim? Why was that?

H: Well, at that time, I weight about, I was a man, weight about 160 pounds. When I got out of the Navy in 1919, I weighed 207 pounds and I was 32 inches around the waist. I weigh 207 pounds today and I’m 43 inches around the waist.